The age-old practice of graft is a feature of a nation’s political system. Power and corruption are always hand in glove and always posed a threat to rule of law and hindered protection of basic civil and economic rights. What is new, however, is the transformation of corruption into an instrument of national strategy. The scale at which it is being practiced especially by Russia and China gives anarchy a new dimension. It is being called ‘weaponised corruption’.
Congressional Research Service in US calls Russia and China as ‘strategic competitor’ states. A strategic competitor exploits state weakness and population to extract resources. The fact that terrorism and criminals thrive where governments are weak, rampant corruption and disruptive and deceitful polity provides the link to strategic corruption as a tool to state policy.
Traditional forms of corruption are usually termed as ‘bureaucratic’ corruption and ’Grand’ corruption. Bureaucratic corruption is the pervasive form which affects our daily life such as obtaining building permit or a driver’s license. Grand corruption involves business leaders or criminals paying off key governmental functionaries or political parties in exchange for a favour in economic sector where high margins are at stake. In both the traditional forms it is a process of greed and attempt to be richer.
It is also destruction of integrity in discharge of public duties. Strategic corruption is inducement against a target country as part of a national strategy. Vulnerable to corruption are weak states leading to breakdown and civil conflict. Situation in Algeria, Venezuela, Iraq, Bolivia are a result of this ongoing great game.
There are prominent cases of strategic corruption in recent times. Ukraine imbroglio, China’s BRI projects and involvement of CEFC China Energy (a private Chinese conglomerate, is among ten largest Chinese companies in 2014), and Chinese overlordship in Italyare vivid examples being played in the International arena. Impeachment of the US President has foreign roots.
What started as a game to remove the US Ambassador in Ukraine led to Dymtro Firtash, the controller of Turkmenistan-Russia-Ukraine gas trade with the backing of Kremlin. For Russia the gas trade is of national importance. Firtash was arrested in 2014 in Austria and is fighting an extradition trial since then. His promise of documents indicting Joe Biden in inappropriate deal is the diabolical connection which elevates ordinary graft to high level geo politics.
China was quick to pounce on the opportunistic strategy for fulfilling their BRI dream. CEFC China Energy executive Patrick Ho was arrested in the US in 2017 for bribing and money laundering. His bribing skills extend from the President of Chad to Uganda, Iran, Libya and Qatar. China by now has built a global connectivity system built of Chinese standards and norms, financed by a network of state-controlled banks. The enabler of this dream is Chinese graft on a mammoth scale.
Chinese efforts in reshaping political environment is systematic and the methods vary with target countries. A structured effort into Australian political space was detected in 2018 when a senator was forced to resign due to his countersurveillance deal with a Chinese donor. Indications of the political and strategic influence came as early as 2005 from the defected Chinese diplomat Chen Yongling.
Australia’s business lobby had made a compelling case of pursuing a thriving commercial engagement with China despite the warning. The structured inroad into Australia started with the lease of the strategically important port of Darwin to Landberg Industry for 99 years in 2015. Attempts to take over the mammoth Kidman farms (100000 Sq Kms) and 50% stake into New South Wales electricity distribution company Ausgrid to State Grid of China ran into trouble with the new Federal government.
Australia, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance declared its opposition to China’s 5G program. A simultaneous effort to fostering corruption among the political elites and Chinese real estate developer, influence and intimidation at universities (sponsored violence and protests by Chinese students), setting up of Confucius institutes, cyber-attacks of a sophisticated kind on the Australian National University in 2018 were the state directed methodology. The happenings are endless.
A weak and accommodative political class with permeated corruption among social elites was exploited by China to its advantage. Nonetheless, the Malcolm government and the present governments have woken up to the ‘Pandemic’ threat and hopefully will be free of the virus.
In Italy, legal and illegal Chinese labour since 1980s set the ball rolling for the present crisis. Hard working and quick to learn, the Chinese have ousted family businesses and set up Chinese villages in Prato (second largest town in Tuscany) in the heart of Tuscany is the largest concentration of Chinese (about 45-50,000) in Europe and virtually under siege.
In 2017, the Bank of China agreed to pay 600000 Euros to settle a money laundering case involving its Milan branch for illicit transfers. In March 2019, Italy entered into an agreement with China, part of its BRI initiative, that allowed the port of Triesta to be revitalized and managed by the PRC. Italy is now beholden to China and Indebted to them for a long time. A political upheaval may get them out of this quagmire.
Closer home, the admitted MOU between Indian National Congress and Chinese Communist Party is in the news. The FTA agreement with China under the previous regime due to Chinese influence and manipulations, if proved, will substantiate the strategic corruption theory.
Gullibility among the social elites and weaknesses in the social structure is exploited by China. Can India stand up to the murderous Chinese onslaught on the weaponised corruption as an instrument of state policy? All countries affected by the Chinese trickery have changed their laws or in the process of tightening them. Affected countries are showing political unity among the ruling and the opposition parties in tackling China.
India has taken a tough stance against China. Economic measures, requiring central government’s vetting of direct foreign investments, cancellation of sanctioned projects, banning Chinese mobile apps and promoting Indian industry and MSME under the Atmanirbhar yojana are scalable steps in the fight. The tough military stance and rescinding the 1998 treaty on restrictions on use of firearms on the LAC demonstrates a decisiveness of the Government.
The pandemic has opened the door for resolving issues that prick and we must use the Kautilyan adage of removing the thorn without remorse or pity. Strategic corruption is a warning that mirrors a new form of warfare on the weak and vulnerable sections of society and political class.