April 26, 2018

Facts, Beliefs, and the Brain: How Propaganda, Ideology, and Donald Trump Inhabit the Group Mind


By Anthony R. Brunello
2017, VOL. 9 NO. 10 | PG. 1/2 | »

In the human experience, political ideology and propaganda have played powerful roles in forging group identity. In the evolution of the human species, beliefs have been as powerful as facts and truths. Knowledge of this research and political reality can help us to understand contemporary politics, and why lies continue to shape political discourse, and also why populist messages are resilient, even when they are wrong.

In The Atlantic magazine (March 11, 2017), Caitlin Flanagan wrote an essay ar Iguing that despite a blizzard of satire lampooning President Donald Trump coming from late night comics and cable television shows, the result has not (so far) diminished the faith of Trump’s base of followers. Titled, “How Late Night Comedy Alienated Conservatives, Made Liberals Smug and Fueled the Rise of Trump,” Flanagan contended, to the contrary, that the cacophony of mocking comedy has deepened polarization and hardened President’s Trump’ support. Flanagan said,

“Though aimed at blue-state sophisticates, these shows are an unintended but powerful form of propaganda for conservatives. When Republicans see these harsh jokes—which echo down through morning news shows and the chattering day’s worth of viral clips, along with those of Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers—they don’t just see a handful of comics mocking them. They see HBO, Comedy Central, TBS, ABC, CBS and NBC. In other words they see exactly what Donald Trump has taught them: that the entire media landscape loathes them, their values, their family, and their religion. It is hardly a reach for them to further imagine that the legitimate news shows on these channels are run by similarly partisan players—nor is it at all illogical. No wonder so many of Trump’s followers are inclined to believe only the things that he or his spokespeople tell them directly—everyone else on the tube thinks they’re a bunch of trailer-park, Oxy-snorting half-wits who divide their time between retweeting Alex Jones fantasies and ironing Klan hoods,” (2017).

Flanagan has a point and it turns out that what she has observed might be coded into the human condition. Public criticism of the president and his followers may have the effect of “circling their wagons” and strengthening group identity in part due to human evolution. In the field of political propaganda this result is akin to watching the use of anchoring myths backfiring in sensational and unwanted ways.


Frustrated Progressives and angry liberals have been asking themselves when the 2016 Trump voters will wake up, show some “buyer’s remorse” and begin to withdraw their support for the President. Not only is such thinking perhaps an unhealthy train of thought, but it is not likely to happen any time soon. What liberals believe is obvious to them will likely not be obvious at all to the Trump supporter sold on their vision of “Making America Great Again.” The slogan of “Making America Great Again” means many different things to different people, which is part of its virtue as a political slogan. No one needs to know how to articulate that vision specifically as long as the slogan binds the group together in a shared sense of identity. The voters who supported President Trump will probably stick with their “man” for a long time—and many—forever.

The author of the book The Sixth Extinction, (2014) Elizabeth Kolbert, wrote an article for the New Yorkermagazine in February 2017 entitled: “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New Discoveries about the Human Mind Show the Limitations of Reason,” (New Yorker, February 27, 2017). In this article Kolbert explains why it is very difficult to change the minds of the ideologically convinced. From the study of the intersection between propaganda and ideology we know that of all the forms of persuasion in rhetoric and communication, the most difficult kind is known as “response changing persuasion.” Response changing persuasion (according to Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, pp. 38-39) involves: “asking people to switch from one attitude to another…People are reluctant to change; thus to convince them to do so, the persuader has to relate the change to something in which the persuadee already believes,” (Jowett and O’Donnell, p. 39). Finding the right “something” is not easy to do. One of the greatest challenges in communication is to find a way to change a person’s mind once it has been made up. The difficulty is increased when the subject is a matter of personal belief, and thus the individual wants to believe in their world view or ideology, no matter what the facts actually say. Ultimately, when it comes to political ideology, changing peoples’ patterns of beliefs requires skill, patience, tenacity and luck.

A Professor of Archaeology at St. Lawrence University named Peter Neal Peregrine, (writing in The Conversation, February 22, 2017) noted that there exists a distinction between two common modes through which human beings determine what we call facts. In our modern times, the predominant mode of understanding “facts” has been through Science. Professor Peregrine argues [in the article titled “Seeking Truth from Alternative Facts,”] for example, that the claim about the “massive and unprecedented” size of the crowd at President Trump’s Inauguration was viewed as silly by most observers because (from a scientific perspective), the claim was empirically false. Science does not employ alternative facts (Ball, 2017). Science (we believe) makes judgments based on established bodies of method, theory and logical argument. In the end, the “alternative facts” that claimed the “largest audience to ever witness an Inauguration—ever,” was materially false because of what was observable and measureable. Scientific perspective helps determine the “truth” (such as we may know it) by empirical observation, measurement and the scientific methods which always maintain the prospect of falsifiability--that a theory or observation may be disproven. In his own scientific research, Professor Peregrine readily admits, for example, that sometimes two archaeologists can look at the same artifact and be uncertain if it is a stone, or some ancient tool. To make a determination, archeologists will apply careful rules, methods and measurements according to their scientific discipline. In the end, the marshaling of material evidence will tip the decision on the “truth” one way or another—until it may be disproven.

Science versus Authority

In 2017, the Trump administration is often operating with a different and an older tradition of marking what is determined to be true. This method, Peregrine suggests, in contrast to Science, is known as the argument of authority. Prior to the rise of Science in the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution, the authority of those with powerdetermined the nature of Truth. In the realm of propaganda, we see the importance under such circumstances in the propagation of ideas, so that the facts or the truths we accept are largely determined by what we may believe, by faith, and what the authorities or the “Powers that Be” may tell us to believe. The wisdom of authority goes back to long before the Middle Ages and deep into the Human experience.

The Enlightenment (the 17th and 18th centuries) gave the world Science as we know it today. The scientific method was a human creation—and was aimed at challenging the venerable modes of judging truth, especially as it related to the natural world and the lives of people. For millennia human beings judged between competing claims of truth based upon whatever the people in power said was true. There was no separation between facts and values; the Shaman, Kings, Emperors, Prophets or Popes ordained the truth. What anyone might have seen, measured or reasoned did not matter. [It is instructive to recall the story of the scientist Galileo and his struggle with the Roman Catholic Church authorities in his discoveries about the solar system, and the invention of the telescope. In the end Galileo’s science did win, but not without a fight]. In the book Ignorance: How it Drives Science, (2012), Stuart Firestein exposed a significant distinction between Science and Authority and that is the substantial role that ignorance plays in forging scientific endeavor and discovery. Knowing what you do not know, and then working through it, is the way science progresses. In Firestein’s view, the scientific method is only a part of the story where the marshalling of data and testing leading to facts is, by itself, simply a process that corroborates or disproves theories. Much of science is also about intuition and serendipity, and in the end, facts remain disinterested. As Firestein says,” Thoroughly conscious ignorance is…the prelude to discovery, “(p. 57). What this means is that ignorance is the inspiration of both our imaginations and our potential discoveries. In contrast, the guidance of “authority” stifles imagination in the cold hands of power and interests.

Gunther Stent’s introductory essay to James Watson’s book The Double Helix, (which is Watson’s personal account of the discovery of DNA) is illustrative of the modes of scientific inquiry. Perhaps few discoveries have had more impact on civilization than the double helix. Stent wrote that, “Just as the Renaissance sprang from the confrontation of the Christian West within the Muslim East, so molecular biology sprang from the confrontation of genetics with biochemistry, (p. xi). In other words, ideas and new ways of thinking are born in competition and struggles over competing forms of truth. Science does not move in a hierarchical fashion, but at its best, is a contest of ideas. In our times, the battle between Science versus Authority was a competition many in the West believed to have been largely settled. The methods for determining truth back before the time of the Renaissance (1300-1700) were established on Authority, and those with social, political and economic power determined the truth. The Renaissance sparked a revolution against Authority. The story of the discovery of DNA as told by James Watson, shows the interplay of human intuition, personality and empirical observation. Science evolved to explode the arguments of Authority; ultimately the truth is a matter of conscious ignorance, experimentation, measurement and proof.

The claims often made by Donald Trump and his administration about facts and reality thus have an old world quality. Professor Peregrine asked a very sincere question: if we believe that those with alternative facts are empowered to shape the truth based simply on their authority, are we-- as a civilization--moving backward in time, beyond the Enlightenment and into the Middle Ages? Scientific data no matter how carefully collected and measured do not carry much weight against arguments based on authority. For example, a good comparison is Evolution versus Creationism. Creationists claim the Earth and all life were created by God and their accounts of this are based on authority, and especially on their sense of the authority of religious belief. Therefore, it is next to impossible, no matter how high the biologist may pile the scientific data concerning Evolution and the science of genetics, to challenge the authority of Creationism. The beliefs of Creationists may remain impervious. What a scientific view calls a false claim can be, in the eyes of the true believer, absolutely true.

True Believers

In the classic work in 1951 entitled The True Believer, (1951) Eric Hoffer explained what he called: “the peculiarities common to all mass movements.” As Hoffer said:

“All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred, intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance,” (Preface, p. 10).

Eric Hoffer also pointedly observed that:


“Things that are not are indeed mightier than things that are. In all ages men have fought most desperately for beautiful cities yet to be built and gardens yet to be planted. Satan did not digress to tell all he knew when he said: ‘All that a man hath will he give for his life.’ All he hath—yes. But he sooner dies than yield aught of that which he hath not yet,” (p. 73).

Hoffer’s argument was quite simple: Human imaginations and the possibility that illusion may control human perception and cognition is a real and a dynamic force in human history. Beliefs are truly the “stuff that dreams are made of” and people will die for what they believe—even if it is wrong—because they believe it to be true. Humanity may look back over the history of the glories and the tragedies and often ask why? The answer lies partly in our brains—and it also may lie in the natural powers of Fear—which generates hatred, illusion and anxiety.

Eric Hoffer made a most compelling suggestion when he wrote: “Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both,” (p. 92). Hoffer was right, and it is not simply the frailty of the human heart—but it rides in our genes and our biology, too. The current populist wave of anger against the establishment in America, Britain, France and across the West is partly inspired by a sense of grievance and fear, and in those conditions, facts are less important by far than what people prefer to believe.

In Ignorance: How It Drives Science, (2012) Firestein observed: “Because you see, the single biggest problem with understanding the brain is having one. Not that it isn’t smart enough. It isn’t reliable,” (p. 125). Human beings are vulnerable to fanatical grievances because of the fear of what is not, or the desire to control what has not happened, or because of the drive for things that are yet to exist. The human brain is both powerful and yet unreliable. People will act on the fear of what they don’t know and cannot predict. Fear is deeply embedded in the evolutionary development of the human species, and fear helps human communities survive. But it is the easiest passion to manipulate in the human heart and the most dangerous. Fear can bring out the very worst in human behavior and thinking. People will easily fear and hate all those who stand in the way of what is not, and also what they believe they want. Human beings can fall prey to believing that something that is not has been taken away from them by some other. For example, such fantasies inspired the Holocaust. Dreams, beliefs—and worse lies—all can become living nightmares.

The Human Brain: Powerful and Unreliable

The social scientific and biological evidence clearly suggests that human beings do not easily change their minds or beliefs once they are established. Elizabeth Kolbert (New Yorker, February 2017) cites several psychological studies beginning in 1975 at Stanford University. In 1975, undergraduate students were given pairs of suicide notes. The pairs held one note written by a random individual, and another by someone who was a real victim of suicide. In the experiment some students found they had a gift for correctly identifying the real suicide notes as opposed to the fake notes. Other students in the experiment found, in contrast, they were terrible at the task. Of course—all of the experimental scores were fictions. All of the suicide notes had come from the coroner’s office and the students who had been told they were generally correct were, on average, no more successful than the students told that they had guessed wrong. These deceptions were revealed in what turned out to be the second phase of the experiment. In part two the students were asked how they should rate their responses. This was another deception. When the students were asked to guess the number of suicide notes they had gotten correct, the students in the original high score group believed that they had done very well; meanwhile the low-score group believed that they had done worse than the other students. The students drew these conclusions even after they were told the truth despite the fact that the entire experiment was a deception and that no group had estimated more successfully than the other. The students tended to accept the false results.

In Kolbert’s article she discusses similar experiments from the 1970s and 80s and the results are the same: “Even after evidence for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” (Kolbert, p. 3). The Stanford studies became famous. Literally thousands of such experimental studies over time confirmed similar results. As Kolbert said: “Reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational,” (p. 3). In our times, and because of the notion that we are navigating a post-fact, post-truth environment, this understanding is all the more significant. Even so, like the definition of Political Power—the real question is why? How and why do people act this way? Political Power is understood to be generated by human relationships. These human relationships are built upon perceptions about Motives and Resources (Burns, 1978). People assess the motives and resources of one another—and followers choose to follow leaders based on perceptions. Propaganda seeks to shape and manipulate human perceptions. The actual factors that are most central to fomenting political power are also naturally embedded in propaganda. The development of propaganda as a tool was certainly no accident.

A new study titled the Enigma of Reason, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber (2017) may hold some clues. Reason [as we understand the human trait] likely evolved in human beings and human communities living in the African savannah. In her book The Sixth Extinction, (2014) Kolbert carefully identified the one trait in human beings that allowed humanity to work and hunt cooperatively. This trait—related to the construction of our mouths and tongues--is the ability to communicate. The primary factor of human success and our ability to compete over other animals and species is this cooperative behavior. Kolbert links this factor to the long time line leading to a current human inspired “6th Extinction.” On our own we would not, and will not, survive. Mercier and Sperber’s research lends further support to this idea: “Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to cooperate. Cooperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. …’Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves’,” (Kolbert, 2017). Habits of thinking that we might think of as strange or weird turn out to be very clever from a “social interaction” standpoint.

To illustrate this point, Kolbert (2017) uses the concept of confirmation biasConfirmation biasrefers to the tendency that people have to accept beliefs that support their preexisting beliefs and to reject any and all new information that comes into conflict with said beliefs. Stanford University again has provided the research which repeatedly confirms the concept. A classic Stanford study conducted by C.G. Lord, Lee Ross and Mark Lepper in 1979 dealt with capital punishment. A group of students were gathered among whom half supported the death penalty while the other half did not. The students were shown two studies. One study provided data to support the deterrence argument—that capital punishment deters crime and murder; the other study provided data that called deterrence into question. As you might guess, the students who supported capital punishment thought the pro-deterrence data were credible. The students who originally opposed capital punishment, viewed the anti-deterrence data as credible. In fact—students who began the study pro-capital punishment were more in favor of the death penalty than prior to the experiment. Those who opposed death penalties also became more fervent in opposition, (Lord, Ross and Lepper, 1979). Why? The answer was Confirmation bias.

Mercier and Sperber’s evolutionary research suggests that the “myside” bias played a role in human “hyper sociability,” (Kolbert, p. 5). As Human individuals, being free riders is frequently a positive choice—getting anything we can with as little invested is basically rational for the individual. The problem is that free rider behavior in groups is a catastrophe. Because human beings must live in groups to survive, the hyper-social qualities began to be selected in our evolution. Over the expanse of time human communities selected for hyper-social qualities. This selection process led to the irony of confirmation or what can also be called “myside” bias, (Mercier and Sperber, 2017). One would think that Confirmation bias—or only agreeing with what my group believes, or what I have always believed in the face of facts to the contrary—should be dangerous. After all, adaptation in response to new data would generally be wise—unless not doing so performed some adaptive function

The Adaptive Functions of “My-Side Bias”

As it turns out, Mercier and Sperber show that “myside bias” had an “adaptive function” and it works within groups to protect us as individuals from getting hurt, or “screwed” by other members of our own group. Once again, according to Kolbert: “Humans…aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we're blind about are our own, ” (2017). Living in small groups as hunter-gatherers, our ancestors’ main concern was with their social standing, and with insuring that they were not the folks risking their lives on the hunt while others relaxed back at cave. Reasoning clearly was less important than winning arguments. Our ancestors, for example, were not concerned about the deterrent effects of capital punishment. They did not deal with  or theory, or false news, fake stories, the social network or Twitter. Reason may seem to fail us today because as Mercier and Sperber argue we live in an environment that changed more quickly than human natural selection could adapt, (Mercier and Sperber). What if human beings are unsuited to deal with the technological world of communication and ideas that exists today? Is it possible that the evolutionary traits that helped humanity succeed are working against us in this new environment?

Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, in their book (2017) The Knowledge of Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, also believe that sociability played the predominant role in how the human mind functions and malfunctions. According to Elizabeth Kolbert (pp. 6-7), these cognitive scientists demonstrate that people believe they know much more than they actually do about the world. In recent studies at Yale, students could not explain the functions of flush toilets, zippers, cylinder blocks, and much more. We laugh when we say that we cannot use most of the electronics we have in our home, but perhaps it should be a cause for some concern. Our persistence in our belief that we know more than we do essentially relies on other people. Whether we are talking about flush toilets, or I-Pods, Smart Phones, or digital televisions or laptop computers—human beings have been relying on the knowledge and expertise of other people since we began hunting in groups. We blissfully delude ourselves that we know how things work when in fact we are actually collaborating with other people. People share knowledge and understandings in such a way that we cannot perceive where our ignorance ends and our authentic knowledge actually begins.

By and large, people do not have clear borders between their ideas and beliefs, and their actual knowledge. It is a kind of confusion , but essential to human progress. We use tools—but we do not have to invent new tools every time we wish to use them. Can you imagine if every generation had to re-invent the wheel, or the shovel, rake, or even the spoon? We need not learn the principles of an internal combustion engine to drive an automobile—nor understand digital electronics to program a  set. The main problems arise according to the research of Sloman and Fernbach when people move into the terrain of politics. [Here you can see the functionality of ideology as a filter; ideology simplifies a complicated world and allows (or calls) people to take action and make choices that they otherwise lack the knowledge to make]. Consider the difference between flushing a toilet and selecting a policy to manage Illegal , or to invade another country like Afghanistan? We assume knowledge enough to vote and make choices about politicians and leaders who argue for policies dealing with far away countries like , North Korea or , or laws like Immigration policy, the Affordable Health Care Act, Tax Reform, Criminal justice reform, Military Strategy, and much more. Even so—as people engage in making decision about these issues, they may know far less about those things than the operation of a zipper. In fact, Sloman and Fernbach’s research says that, “As a rule strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” (Sloman and Fernbach, 2017)). Our dependence on the minds and arguments of others becomes dominant in our thinking processes. Our thinking becomes the thinking of those we agree with—and despite their lack of knowledge—seems to support what we think. In the end, as Elizabeth Kolbert said: “If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration,” (Kolbert, 2017, p. 7).

A community of “knowledge” becomes dangerous as we continually express opinions without data and analysis. This is what we often refer to as the “narrative,” and the process concerns the manner which stories are shaped and then which stories dominate the social and historical landscape. For a long time, Science has been a system for correcting our worst inclinations as human beings. Returning to questions posed by Peter Peregrine, we may shudder to ask: “Are we re-entering a pre-Enlightenment world?” Are we returning to the Middle Ages when authority and the group mind blocked the rise of new and scientific ideas that changed the world? Scientific inquiry has no place for “confirmation bias.” Undoubtedly, access to empirical truths and material data probably accounts for the massive success of science over the last 300 years—and why we need a Political Science today more than ever.



The Illusion of Knowledge

Elizabeth Kolbert also examined the research of Jack and Sara Gorman (2016) and their book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us. The Gorman’s studied persistent beliefs that are not only demonstrably false, but possibly deadly. For example, the conviction held by many people that vaccines are hazardous, and may lead to birth defects and disease, is persistent despite the massive palliative effect of vaccinations over time. Without the polio vaccine for example, the world would yet be battling this painful disfiguring disease. “Anti-vaxxers” (as they are called) are obstinate in their beliefs although there is no common or scientific link between immunization and mass birth defects, seizures or autism. At the same time there is scientific evidence to the contrary. The real hazard we face in society is not being vaccinated, and that is something we can empirically measure.

So, what does America do when it has a President who has shared the “Anti-Vaxxers” world view? Suggestively, the Gorman’s research found that this kind of self-destructive thinking had some adaptive value in human biology. Apparently, human beings get a rush of dopamine-- hence a physiological reaction—when they process information that supports their pre-existing beliefs. We should not be surprised that blasting off our own opinions actually “feels good,” and it may account for why people become so agitated when confronted by opinions that challenge their own. In other words, it feels good to “stick to our guns,” even when we are as wrong as sin and suffering. (This perhaps helps to explain so many ruined family gatherings).

Common sense and science tells us that vaccines are good for kids, and handguns are not. The data are clear. Having said that, providing people with the information that owning a gun does not make you safer, or that vaccines save lives, will not change minds. Such information will be discounted. In another example, many folks believe that the economy always does better under Republican Presidents. In fact, between 1949 and 2009, the US gross domestic product has been higher under Democratic Presidents. In addition, Democratic Presidents have been more likely to reduce inequality—and have contributed less to the national debt since 1945 as a percentage of GDP. In another example, many people believe: “The government spends a lot of money on welfare,” but in fact 8% of the total 2014 US budget was devoted to “welfare” benefits. Many people believe violent  is on the rise, but over the last decade violent crime has fallen. In fact—since 1991 violent crime has fallen by 50%. Murder rates between 1993 and 2010 dropped by 49% and general violent crime has fallen by 72% since 1993. So why do people prefer to believe what is not true—including empirical truths that would not only make us feel safer, but would actually improve our security? (Hochschild, 2017)

The answer lies in part in our human desire to belong. Our group identity forces us to seek comfortable answers that insure group acceptance and make us feel good and comfortable. It is also much easier to not change beliefs. This behavior is reinforced because human beings have learned that we do not really need to know how things work to get along and succeed. The brain seeks the easiest way to accomplish any goal, which generally speaking, has been a good thing in human evolution. We also know from long historical experience that emotion and passion can often defeat scientific understandings. Science requires our brains to work harder; actually understanding and knowing the truth is challenging. For example, Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” are a good fit for the current times. Alternative facts, and acting on passions, authority, anger and fear—is faster and easier—and will always be tempting to people. In politics—this has always been true and it is something the philosophers have warned about for millennia. In fact, it is one of the main things Madison warned about in Federalist No. 51: ”But what is government, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” (Madison, The Federalist, 2001). As Kolbert said: “These days it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run by no one, or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter (Kolbert says) the literature is not reassuring,” (Kolbert, 2017). There are many ways to define political ideology, but among the best is to think of ideologies as “patterns of belief.” Ideologies are calls to action, dreams, delusions and nightmares, but they are always a pattern of beliefs organized in such a way as to define the world people see and understand. Ideologies filter out the competing ideas of the political world and simplify complex reality to become not only our calls to action but our personal identities, (Love, 2006). Political ideology in a time where truth is malleable means that just as we might have been ready to embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a template to a world of decency and  in the future, we may be equally poised to fall prey to lies, deceits, or propaganda of the darkest sort in the service to interests who do not seek the public good.


Professor Larry J. Sabato of the Crystal Ball(University of Virginia, Political Science) analyzed polling data in April 2017 that confirmed the following: “Voters who supported President Donald Trump in last year’s election have few regrets as Trump enters his 100th day in office…,” (www.centerforpolitics.org, April 27, 2017). The data (scientifically gathered) confirm that voters who elected Trump show a 93% approval rating, with 42% in “strong approval” and 51% with “somewhat approve.” In addition, 70% of these Trump voters believe the country is now “on the right track,” and two thirds believe the economy is improving since Trump took office. The polling data did reflect that many respondents are concerned about America, using words like “upheaval,” “polarization,” “chaotic,” and “volatile,” to describe the country at this time, but it is hard to know what form these feelings may take in each respondent’s mind. Break down in the “strong approval” categories still show the same characteristics as in the November 2016 election among Trump voters: 44% of “strong approvers” were Men, 39% were women; and respondents over 65 years old were the only age group outnumbering “somewhat approvers” (around 48-46%). Meanwhile “strong approvers” of Trump narrowly outnumbered “somewhat approvers” only among those with a High School  or less. Trump voters with “some” college education were likelier to “somewhat approve” than to “strongly approve.” Trump voters’ approval at the 100 Day mark remained strong in early 2017, and they may not change their minds any time soon in the future.

The search for truth relies on the belief that understanding and wisdom matters; that observation and analysis matter; that in politics, lives and passions matter—but so too does knowledge, expertise, and intelligence. One key insight found in the study of propaganda and political ideology is to appreciate the difficulty of changing the embedded beliefs of people. The human community has made the species successful, and over time has selected for the traits that support group identity. The human being needs to belong to the group as much as to be a discrete individual and the research show that group coherence, even when errors in judgment or opinion are dangerous, has aided human survival and dominance. Hence, human beings do not change their minds easily, even when they are wrong, and more important, even after the evidence of error is shown to people. People created and employ political ideology to make political choices and to operate within their social groups successfully. Evolution and biology help us to understand, in part, the powerful role of ideology in organizing human hyper-sociability into integrated patterns of belief. Political ideology authorizes our emotional and unreasonable beliefs to appear to be rational and reasonable. With the aid of propaganda, political ideology works within the group to shape and influence beliefs and bind groups together in action. Political ideology is endemic in the success of any human community, and is more than patterns of beliefs or movements, but the binding force within the shape of political  itself.


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Sabato, Larry J. (2017). “Center for Politics Poll Takes Temperature of Trump Voters at 100 Day Mark,” Crystal Ball. April 27, 2017. http://www.centerfor politics.org.

Sloman, Steven and Philip Fernbach. (2017). The Knowledge of Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. New York: Riverhead Books.

Watson, James. (1980). The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Edited by Gunther Stent. New York: W.W. Norton Company.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

This manuscript is the original research of the author and there was no funding or grant support received or accepted. All conclusions and opinions are the responsibility of the author alone and there is no  of interest. This article does not contain studies with human participants or animals performed by the author

Tracing the Success of Soft Power in the US State Department's Future Leaders Exchange Program


By Leyla R. Latypova
2017, VOL. 9 NO. 10 | PG. 1/1

The United States government started exploring the soft power potential of student and scholar exchange programs as early as 1908, with the establishment of the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program.1 The father of the theory of soft power, Joseph Nye, was not even born when Edmund James, then president of the University of Illinois, outlined precisely the soft power benefits of the student exchange in his letter to president Franklin D. Roosevelt. James wrote, “The nation which succeeds in educating the young Chinese of the present generation will be the nation which, for a given expenditure of effort, will reap the largest possible returns in moral, intellectual and commercial influence.”2

Fifty years after James’ letter was written, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) was established; the organization today operates an entire industry of the US Federal Government sponsored student and scholar exchange programs. The truly industrial scale of ECA activity is reflected in impressive numbers: in 2013 the number of foreign participants of the programs reached 9 million people, 565 alumni of the ECA programs are current or former heads of state and government, and 31 alumni are heads of international organizations.3 And while the official mission statement of the bureau stresses promotion of mutual understanding and the development of peaceful relations, if we look at the statistics of the ECA activity against the global influence of the United States, it is clear that the real mission of the agency today still rests on the assumption outlined by James back in 1908: youth exchange is a key to the continued exercise of American influence abroad.

The ECA has historically run programs around the world, and the collapse of the Soviet Union offered the chance for a greater expansion of the agencies’ work and accordingly, American soft power influence. The US Senator from New Jersey, Bill Bradley, was quick to see the opportunity and in May of 1992 introduced the so-called Freedom Exchange Act, in which he proposed the establishment of an educational program with the now independent states of the Former Soviet Union (FSU).4 The same year the ECA announced the start of the recruitment process for its first high school exchange program in the twelve countries of the FSU. The program was named Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) and gave successful applicants an opportunity to spend one fully funded academic year in the United States, living with a volunteer host family and attending an American high school. A rather unique experiment at the time, the FLEX program proved to be a tremendous success and year 2017 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of its existence.5

Some might argue that the success of the program is questionable due to the fact that the operation of FLEX was suspended at first by the government of Uzbekistan, then Belarus, and, finally, in 2014 by Russia, the country that had the largest number of FLEX alumni at the time.6 The central aim of the paper at hand, therefore, is to show that the withdrawal of the above-mentioned countries from the program is a demonstration of the program’s successful ability to, as Joseph Nye would put it, “win hearts and minds” of the young people.7 An entire generation of FLEX-influenced young leaders has the capacity to make an impact on their home country’s civil society, and the existence of an active civil society is a threat to the “stability” of the current regimes in those countries. The research at hand attempts to develop a more thorough understanding of FLEX as a public diplomacy practice by providing an answer to the question of why the program has been successful in promoting US democracy and active citizenship in the countries of the Former Soviet Union.

Literature Review


A significant amount of the existing public diplomacy research focuses on what kind of soft power enhancement opportunities are offered to countries via the internationalization of its higher education. The objectives of the cultural and student exchange programs similar to FLEX, however, largely differ from those attributed to educational soft power in its traditional sense. The soft power of exchange programs exists somewhere at the crossroads of educational, cultural and non-state public diplomacy; it allows a state to utilize all three sources of its soft power- culture, values, and policies- at once. Therefore, the multidimensional soft power of student and scholar exchange programs creates space for a new, largely unique area of public diplomacy research.

Only a handful of the existing research material is aimed at exploring if and how the exchange programs allow for diffusion of host state’s values in a participant’s home state and subsequent enhancement of its soft power abroad. One of the most significant contributions to this research area was made by Carol Atkinson in her article titled Does Soft Power Matter? A Comparative Analysis of Student Exchange Programs 1980–2006. Atkinson’s work is of particular importance for the research at hand as it proves the hypothesis of US-hosted exchange programs being able to serve as catalysts of the diffusion of liberal values and practices across the borders of authoritarian states.8

In her research Atkinson looks at the broad variety of exchange programs and offers, as she labels it, a “systematic empirical examination” of their success. Some existing literature, however, examines success of the exchange industry through concrete examples. The work that is of particular importance for the research at hand is Yale Richmond’s Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. Published in 2003, Richmond’s book examines how American soft power in the context of the student and scholar exchanges between the USSR and the US contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Richmond utilizes a great number of primary and secondary sources in the research, including his personal accounts and interviews with the participants from both sides of the Wall. Well-acclaimed by critics and praised for its unique outlook on the topic of East-West confrontation, the book, however, doesn’t provide more than a brief hypothesis on the state of the cultural exchange after the end of the Cold War.9 10 The paper at hand, therefore, serves as an attempt to offer an extension to Richmond’s pioneering research.


A number of primary and secondary sources was utilized in the research: brochures, newsletters and newspapers accessible to the public and those available exclusively to the members of FLEX alumni community: blogs of FLEX alumni and current participants, publicly available interviews and commentaries received during the authors’ conversations with the members of FLEX community. In addition, the research at hand is enriched by the account of the author’s personal experience as a FLEX program participant and an active member of the FLEX alumni community.

Targets and Targeting Strategies

In order to find the roots of the FLEX program’s soft power success it is necessary first to create a clear picture of the program’s targets. FLEX eligibility requirements vary slightly from country to country depending on the secondary education system differences. Generally, however, the participant must be in their eighth, ninth or tenth year of schooling, between 14 -18 years old, be a citizen of one of the participating states, and not have lived in the US for three or more months in the last five years.11

It is important to note that FLEX welcomes the participation of students with disabilities. However, those students are subject to a different selection process and their experiences in the United States differ largely from those of the majority of participants, and for that reason will not be examined in the paper at hand. It is worth mentioning, however, that many FLEX alumni with disabilities state that in the US they “finally had a chance to feel normal.”12Indeed, most former Soviet states struggle with integration of people with disabilities into society; many are unable to attend public schools and are deprived of opportunities to interact with their peers, which is not the case in the United States. Many FLEX alumni with disabilities therefore actively engage in social work and projects aimed at helping people with disabilities upon their return from the US. Perhaps, promotion of social inclusion abroad is in this case could be seen as yet another success of the US foreign policy agenda.

Another two eligibility requirements are related to student’s academic achievements: “have grades of good or better” and “[are] able to speak English well.”13 The latter requirement is of particular interest to this research, first in its relation to the number one step of FLEX application process, after which less than 50% of initial number of applicants remain in the competition. This step is a very short and a rather simple “test of English.” Personal observations of the author and her conversations with several English language teachers whose students participated in FLEX testing suggest, however, that many candidates with exceptionally strong English language abilities don’t pass those tests, while others, whose language abilities could be rated as “average” make it to the second round. That enables us to conclude that perhaps the test does not solely test students’ English abilities, but additionally serves to identify a certain psychological type of human being that would fit FLEX criteria.

The following two rounds of FLEX are a “pure psychology,” with the second involving two personality essays.14 Again, less than 50% of participants have a chance to continue their fight for the American dream. Then come two more essays, a lengthy application form and a letter to a host family in round three. In addition, there is one round of in-person interviews and several group discussions and games, which are videotaped in order to be examined by the election committee specialists later on. Applicants are also required to complete a two-hour English language proficiency test.

What qualities do the “survivors” of this lengthy and stressful application process share? They all are indeed people capable of working under pressure and they are absolutely fearless. There are countless number of FLEX alumni who openly admit that somewhere in round two they completely forgot a certain phrase in English and some say that they decided to insert a drawing instead and others simply wrote it in their mother tongue and, arguably, it was that “boldness” that allowed them to embark on the American journey.15 They all have their passion in life and that passion makes them noticeable individuals whether they are performing team building activities with their peers or trying to express themselves on a piece of paper. They have excellent communication abilities, and a strong incentive to come back and contribute to their home community, whether through strong connections to their family or friends, or a renewed feeling of patriotism.

It is evident that the rigorous selection process allows the ECA to choose individuals who already have a large potential to succeed in their home communities for participation in the FLEX program. Now it is important to examine what exactly the agency does in order to not simply utilize that potential but utilize it in a way that in the long run would support the interests of the United States.

Modus Operandi


FLEX has a total of five official program goals, and every participant’s “American experience” is carefully structured around them. The goals are as follows:

Gain an understanding of American society, people, values, culture, diversity and respect for others with differing viewsInteract with Americans and generate enduring tiesTeach Americans about your home country and cultureExplore and acquire an understanding of the key elements of U.S. Civil SocietyShare and apply experiences and knowledge in your home country as alumni16

It is important to note that none of these goals focus on schooling. FLEX students are not expected to take the most from the American secondary education system, and perhaps pave their way to attending an American university and then contributing to the American economy and to their home countries’ “brain drain” numbers. On the contrary, participants are expected to center their year around social activities and human interactions and then necessarily come back to their home countries and share their experiences. So how does this scheme look in action?

Each FLEX student is required to serve a certain number of community service hours. Because the majority of the students live in smaller American towns, community service allows them to meet many people and develop stronger ties to their host community as a whole. Moreover, in most of the participants’ home states interest and levels of engagement in volunteering activities are rather low, therefore, for many FLEXers volunteering in the US is a truly life-changing, transformative experience. “It was during my American year that I became interested in social change, and was introduced to the idea of volunteering,” says FLEX’04 alumna Lana Chkhartishvili.17 FLEX alumnus Aziz from Kazakhstan describes the impact of volunteer activities in the US as follows:

My year in the US made me realize that we actually can change life for the better! Upon my return from the US I had a strong feeling of bringing some changes into the lives of other Kazakhstani people - youngsters particularly. My first alumni activity was a Christmas party for Orphanage # 218

One of the most impressive FLEX stories, however, is the story of FLEX 2009 alumna from Russia, Anna Safronova. Anna is a founder of the global Dream FUNding initiative and the My Dream City International movement, which have a mission “to promote education for orphans and neglected children around the world, help them to become self-sufficient and secure their successful transition into adulthood.”19 Behind the initiative, which now operates in several countries of the FSU and even Nigeria, thanks to FLEX alumni community, is a story of meeting an orphaned elementary school student during her exchange year in the US. “Despite not having natural parents he led a completely normal life, went to a regular school and had many friends. The contrast between his life and those led by Russian orphans seemed so striking that I decided to do something about it when I returned,” says Anna.20

It is important to note, that FLEX alumni have an opportunity to receive grants for group or individual projects aimed at promoting community involvement, US values or sharing their skills and experiences acquired in the United States.21 The examples of projects include the School of Local Leaders in Moldova, Inclusive Summer Camp in Armenia, and the Extension of Water Pipe in Selkhoztekhniva Micro Region (Tajikistan), which was praised by the U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Susan Elliot and the mayor of Khorough.22

While the exact correlation between democratizationand volunteering is a subject to debate, such correlation undoubtedly exists and, therefore, it is reasonable for us to conclude that engaging the exchange students in volunteering is not only the way of establishing stronger ties with their host community, but a way to teach them what it means to be an active citizen. Active citizenship as such is a building block for every democratic society and evidently one of the core of the so-called American values. Volunteers helping elderly people and orphans are, however, highly unlikely to threaten Belorussian or Russian political regimes, though young political activists indeed can.

During the year in the US every FLEX student has an opportunity to tour the capital of their state and meet with the state governor to learn more about the local system of governance and share their experiences as an exchange student. FLEX participants interested in politics and governance have an opportunity to apply and be selected to participate in a so-called Civic Education Workshop in Washington, DC, which allows the “participants learn firsthand about the U.S. federal system of government and other important concepts through seminar discussions, briefings, and meetings on Capitol Hill.”23

For most of FLEX participants the mere idea of being able to meet a federal government official is rather foreign, and it is evident that after their experience in the US many start questioning why their home government doesn't work in the same way. Here is the reflection of FLEX’12 alumna Olena from Ukraine:

The idea of being politically active [had] not even been considered by older generations and my parents just because we are an ethnic minority in Ukraine. Here in the US it has proven to be different. […] After my FLEX year I want to encourage my generation to get involved, raise your voice and think as big as you can24

The Ukrainian FLEX Alumni community as a whole could arguably serve as a living example of how an American soft power influence translates into hard politics. Many members of the community were actively engaged in the events linked to the Ukrainian revolution, and some of them hold important positions under the current government. Andriy Shevchenko, FLEX’94 alumnus, prominent Ukrainian journalist, former parliamentarian and a member of the so-called “Tymoshenko Block,” in 2015 was appointed a Ukrainian ambassador to Canada.25FLEX’04 alumna Halyna Yanchenko was appointed an anti-corruption deputy of the Kiev City Council after the 2014 Maidan Revolution.26

While Shevchenko and Yanchenko are only two out of many members of the Ukrainian FLEX alumni who built incredibly successful careers in their home countries, the fact that their career success wouldn’t be possible without the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution and acquisition of power by the pro-western government creates a linkage valuable for this analysis. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that Russia’s suspension of FLEX right after the 2014 Ukrainian events was simply a matter of coincidence. After all, the chief editor of the Kremlin’s media weapon, RT, Margarita Simonyan is 1994 FLEX alumna, which means that the Russian government is not oblivious to how powerful the exchange program might be when it comes to educating and shaping the ideas of young leaders about the ways and means of operating a true democratic society.

Conclusions and Further Research

As noted by Nye, the political values of a country become its soft power resource “when it lives up to them at home and abroad.”27 The examples above demonstrate that FLEX program participants during their exchange year have an opportunity to experience the US democracy at work in the domestic sense, which in turn allies with country’s international “democracy promoter” image. The very eventful American year is followed by the familiarity and boringness of home and a so-called state of a reverse culture shock, which perpetuates a more active engagement with the alumni community and often engagement in volunteer activities at home. Some alumni develop small community projects into large movements, some embark on creating US-inspired business start ups, others, however, decide to pursue the path of making their country’s political life better and more democratic. The research at hand presented only several examples of how the American exchange experience of FLEX participants translates into an attempt to promote active citizenship and democratic values in their home countries. The examples, however, help to provide a clear answer to the initial question of the research: why has the Future Leaders Exchange Program been successful in promoting US democracy and active citizenship policy in the countries of the Former Soviet Union? First of all, the FLEX participant-selection process allows the program to choose and invest in a very particular group of individuals. The targets are young people who are not only very likely to internalize the ideas of freedom and democracy, but who also have a will and capability to share and enact their ideas in home communities. Secondly, the exchange year of the participants is carefully structured in a way that allows exposure to the best aspects of America’s democratic system. Thirdly, upon their return to their home country, alumni become a part of a larger network of like-minded individuals, which allows for more opportunities for knowledge diffusion and active cooperation.

While the evidence used in the research at hand has proven to be effective in answering the original question, further empirical research is needed to support the theory of cultural programs being an effective soft power and policy diffusion tool. For example, figures measuring the number of FLEX alumni getting involved in home state politics, how many FLEX alumni leave their home state (and hence don’t have an impact on the home country and community), how many FLEX alumni work in the sphere of US-FSU diplomacy etc., would allow us to provide more evidence for, or completely dismantle, the theory at hand.


1.) Scott-Smith, Giles. "Still Exchanging? The History, Relevance, and Effect of International Exchange Programs." E-International Relations. September 14, 2012. Accessed April 17, 2017. http://www.e-ir.info/2012/09/14/still-exchanging-the-history-relevance-and-effect-of-international-exchange-programs/#_edn1.

2.) Edmund James, “Memorandum Concerning the Sending of An Educational Commission to China,” University of Illinois Archives. https://archives.library.illinois.edu/erec/University%20Archives/0205013/Volume%202/james_on_china_march_3_1905.pdf

3.) "Facts and Figures." U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Accessed April 17, 2017. https://eca.state.gov/impact/facts-and-figures.

4.) S. 2777 — 102nd Congress: Freedom Exchange Act.” www.GovTrack.us. 1992. April 17, 2017

5.) American Councils for International Education ACTR/ACCELS. “Civic Education Week 2013, FLEX 20.” Future Leaders EXpress Special Edition

6.) Bryntseva, Galina. “A uchilsya li mal'chik?” Rossiyskaya gazeta – Federal'nyi vypusk №6498 (226) https://rg.ru/2014/10/02/programma.html

7.) Nye, Joseph S. "Public Diplomacy and Soft Power."The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science616 (2008): 94-109. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25097996.

8.) Atkinson, Carol. "Does Soft Power Matter? A Comparative Analysis of Student Exchange Programs 1980-2006." Foreign Policy Analysis 6, no. 1 (2010): 1-22. doi:10.1111/j.1743-8594.2009.00099.x.

9.) Wood Aucoin, Amanda. “The review of the Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain by Yale Richmond.” Russian Review 63, no. 4 (2004): 719-720

10.) Nelson, Keith L. “The Review of Cultural Exchange & the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. By Yale Richmond.” The Journal of American History 12 (2004): 1079-1080

11.) "Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX)." American Councils for International Education Kyrgyzstan. Accessed April 18, 2017. http://americancouncils.kg/programs/flex/.

12.) From personal conversations with FLEX’10 alumna

13.) "Future Leaders Exchange Program (FLEX)." American Councils for International Education Kyrgyzstan. Accessed April 18, 2017. http://americancouncils.kg/programs/flex/.

14.) "Temy dlya esse, kotorye vstrechalis' flekseram poslednie neskol'ko let. Vtoroi i tretii tur." FLEX prgramma obmena - Besplatnoe obuchenie v SSHA. Accessed April 18, 2017. http://flex-exchange.ru/index/topics_esse/0-28.

15.) From conversations with members of the Bashkortostan regional FLEX Alumni community

16.) "FLEX Program." American Councils for International Education Armenia. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://americancouncils.am/future-leaders-exchange/.

17.) "Lana Chkhartishvili '04 Bringing Change to Legal Education in Georgia." The Bradley Herald. May 26, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://www.bradleyherald.org/2015/05/05/lana-chkhartishvili-04-bringing-change-to-legal-education-in-georgia/.

18.) American Councils for International Education ACTR/ACCELS, Future Leaders Ledger Special Edition (2012): 6

19.) "About us." MDC international. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://dreamfunding.org/about-us/.

20.) "Anna Safronova '09 My Dream City Movement." The Bradley Herald. May 27, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://www.bradleyherald.org/2015/05/26/anna-safronova-09-my-dream-city-movement/.

21.) "Announcing 2016-2017 FLEX Alumni Grants Program." The Bradley Herald. March 08, 2016. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://www.bradleyherald.org/2015/12/14/flex-grants-2016/.

22.) "Extension of Water Pipe in Selkhoztekhniva Micro Region." The Bradley Herald. October 02, 2013. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://www.bradleyherald.org/2013/10/02/extension-of-water-pipe-in-selkhoztekhniva-micro-region/.

23.) "Workshop Opportunities." Discoverflex. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://discoverflex.org/news-and-events/workshop-opportunities/.

24.) American Councils for International Education ACTR/ACCELS. “A Capitol Celebration” Future Leaders Express 1, no. 1 (2012): 6

25.) FLEX Alumni Program Facebook Page, accessed April 19, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/flexalumni/

26.) "Halyna Yanchenko '04 Anticorruption Deputy at Kyiv City Council." The Bradley Herald. April 29, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2017. http://www.bradleyherald.org/2015/04/29/halyna-yanchenko-04-anticorruption-deputy-at-kyiv-city-council/.

27.) Nye, Joseph S. "Public Diplomacy and Soft Power." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (2008): 94-109. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25097996.



India must reject Trump’s Iran policy with the contempt it deserves

India must reject Trump’s Iran policy with the contempt it deserves

India’s biggest Chabahar-related challenge comes from US President Donald Trump’s policy to squeeze Iran

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Iran President Hassan Rouhani, Hyderabad House, New Delhi, February 17, 2018 (Vipin Kumar/HT)

Updated: Apr 26, 2018 15:48 IST

By Brahma Chellaney

Exaggerated media accounts have sought to portray commercial glitches in India’s Chabahar port project, such as attracting a private partner for the operation of marine facilities there and an excise-duties dispute, as emblematic of its eroding influence in southern Asia. Some have seized on the Iranian foreign minister’s statement in Islamabad that Chinese and Pakistani investment in Chabahar was welcome as evidence of India’s declining strategic reach. That statement was largely an attempt to dispel a perception that Iran has teamed up with India to checkmate China’s Gwadar designs.

To be sure, India’s regional clout has suffered — from Sri Lanka and the Maldives to Nepal. The main driver of New Delhi’s eroding influence is Beijing, which has made deep inroads in India’s backyard. By incrementally encroaching on the Bhutan-claimed Doklam Plateau, China has also shown that India cannot guarantee Bhutan’s territorial integrity.

In this dismal picture, however, Chabahar represents a strategic advance, not setback, for India. The Chabahar project’s substantial progress allows India to bypass Pakistan to reach markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the past six months, consignments of wheat, for example, have been passing from India to Afghanistan through Chabahar. In effect, Chabahar helps break Pakistan’s barrier to Indian exports to landlocked Afghanistan.

The hyperbole in India notwithstanding, Chabahar is not a strategic counterpoise to the Chinese-built and -run Gwadar port, adjacent to which Beijing is reportedly building a naval base. The port in Gwadar offers China joint naval patrols with Pakistan in the Indian Ocean, while Gwadar airport will provide Beijing an airlift capability to link up with its military base in Djibouti. By contrast, Chabahar, located barely 72 km from Gwadar, is a purely commercial project with no military utility.

Chabahar, easily accessible from India’s western coast, is part of a larger Indian-supported transport corridor. For example, the Indian-built, 193-km road from Delaram, in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province, to Zaranj, on the Iranian border, links up with Iran’s new connecting road from Zaranj down to Chabahar. In addition, India is involved in a Chabahar-Faraj-Bam rail link and in a railway from Chabahar to Zahedan, on the Iran-Afghan border. It is also interested in a Chabahar-Hajigak railway that creates direct access to Afghan mines.

Chabahar’s development has been driven by shared India-Iran objectives, including ending Afghanistan’s dependence on Karachi port and integrating that country with their economies. Chabahar, lying outside the Persian Gulf and thus relatively safe from a hostile blockade, is Iran’s gateway to the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Developing Chabahar allows Iran not only to receive larger ships but also to boost its energy and other exports.

It was only after the US-Iran nuclear deal eased decade-long international sanctions on Tehran that Chabahar’s expansion could begin in earnest. In 2016, India signed a $500-million agreement to develop two terminals — a multipurpose cargo terminal and a container terminal — in Chabahar, as part of a trilateral pact with Afghanistan and Iran. Since then, work has progressed considerably. The initial expansion of Chabahar was inaugurated this year, with Iran leasing operational control of the port’s first completed phase to India for 18 months.

Afghanistan is already becoming a major beneficiary of the Chabahar-linked transport corridor. It has shifted the bulk of its cargo traffic away from Karachi to Chabahar and Bandar Abbas. Chabahar is set to turn into a vital trading hub — a sprawling, modern port.

But as the port’s further expansion makes progress, India faces project completion challenges that extend from the changing geopolitical dynamics to its own proverbial red-tape. Cash-strapped Pakistan has no capacity to invest in Chabahar. But if China were to invest there, the commercial and strategic value of Chabahar for India to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia is unlikely to diminish.

Iran is seeking to ease its heavy dependence on China that developed during the sanctions period. But Iran finds itself stymied by residual but biting US-led sanctions, as in the financial sector. With western clearing banks still spurning Tehran, western firms cannot raise project finance to do business in Iran.

India’s biggest Chabahar-related challenge comes from US President Donald Trump’s policy to squeeze Iran — a message Trump’s then national security adviser, Lt Gen HR McMaster, brought to New Delhi. India, which paid a heavy price for complying with past US sanctions, needs to reject Trump’s Iran policy with the contempt it deserves. It cannot allow the Chabahar project to be hamstrung by geopolitical factors. As the top US general in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, has acknowledged, “Iranian-Indian-Afghan cooperation over the Chabahar port presents great economic potential” and a boon for Afghanistan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author

The views expressed are personal

April 25, 2018

Belt and Road at a Glance: RWR Advisory

Belt and Road at a Glance

Top Developments

EU Ambassadors to China (sans Hungary) Rebuke BRI in Joint Letter
On April 18, Germany’s Handelsblatt reported that 27 of 28 EU ambassadors to China had signed a joint statement criticizing the Belt and Road Initiative.Hungary, a major target of Chinese largesse, was the only EU member-state that did not sign the document. The main criticism expressed by the ambassadors was that BRI “runs counter to the EU agenda for liberalizing trade and pushes the balance of power in favor of subsidized Chinese companies.” While the report was not made public and is not necessarily an expression of policy from the countries involved, it is a significant setback for China’s hope of rallying EU member-state support for its reimagining of the global trading order.Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan: No Military Intent for CPEC
Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing sought to allay growing concerns in the country about the strategic risks associated with the BRI-linked China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, telling Voice of America on April 22, “I want to make it very clear, Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, and with CPEC under it, is purely a commercial development project. We don’t have any kind of military or strategic design for that.” He conceded that it was “natural” that such concerns would arise. Yao’s message, however, was muddled by China’s newly-arrived Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe, who told Pakistan’s Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi that China is preparedto provide security guarantees for the Belt and Road project.Battling Forex Crisis, Pakistan Mulls “Panda Bond” Issue
In an effort to stave off a months-long dwindling of foreign exchange stocks and avoid seeking IMF assistance, Islamabad authorities are consideringissuing an RMB-denominated “Panda Bond,” as well as raising dollar-denominated debt targeted at the Pakistani diaspora. The World Bank warned in October that Pakistan needed to raise $17 billion to meet its debt repayment obligations and settle its current account deficit. The strategy further links Pakistan to a China-centric financing strategy. According to the Financial Times, Pakistan quietly borrowed more than $1 billion from Chinese financial institutions last year during a worsening of its current account deficit.China, Nepal Pursue Trans-Himalaya Railway; India Invited to Join
China and Nepal share a “long-term vision” for building a “trans-Himalayan connectivity network,” the two country’s foreign ministers announced in Beijing on April 18. Specifically, Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gwayali said both sides had agreed to joint feasibility studies on a cross-border railway linking the Tibetan city of Gyirong on the Nepal-Tibet border to Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Lumbini. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Nepal and China would invite India to join the project, noting that “support for Nepal’s development should be a common understanding between India and China.” The project is likely to raise questions with regard to the competition for influence in Nepal (between China and India) playing out in the economic and financial domain.China, Finland to Enhance Arctic Research Cooperation
China and Finland have agreed to establish a joint research center for Arctic space observation and data sharing services, the China Academy of Sciences announced on April 18. The agreement states that the center will be built in Sodanklya, Lapland. This announcement follows the 2016 construction of the China Remote Sensing Satellite North Polar Ground Station, located inSweden. China has been seeking greater overall involvement in Scandinavia alongside its efforts to gain a seat at the table internationally on matters related to the Arctic.CCCC To Build Tunnel Complex at Colombo, Sri Lanka
China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) will invest $800 million to build a road tunnel network serving Sri Lanka’s Port City, a reclamation project in the country’s capital, Colombo. The government of Sri Lanka is preparing tax incentives to help meet its goal of $15 billion in investment in the project over the next 30 years. The Colombo Port City project is contractedto CCCC subsidiary China Harbor Engineering Company, which also worked on the controversial port construction project at Hambantota.Three Chinese Mining Companies Banned in Cameroon
The warmth generated by Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s recent visit to Beijing suffered a setback on April 21, when the country’s Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Technological Development announced that three Chinese companies (Hong Kong Mining, Peace Mining, and Lu & Lang) were ordered to cease operations and leave East Cameroon due to allegations linking them to local deaths and operating without the necessary licenses. While none of the companies involved rank among China’s top mining companies, the development is still remarkable as the announcement came just one month after a series of major investment announcements, including China canceling part of Cameroon’s debt.

Data from IntelTrak, April 10 - 24

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What They're Saying

Interview with the Associated Press

"We feel that we will stop borrowing. We will try to renegotiate the terms of the borrowing. In the case of projects, we may have to study whether we would continue or we would slow down or we would renegotiate the terms."

Speaking with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawala Asif

"Our iron friendship with Pakistan will never rust or be tempered into steel."

Speaking at the China-IMF Capacity Development Center launch

"The first challenge is ensuring that Belt and Road only travels where it is needed. With any large-scale spending there is sometimes the temptation to take advantage of the project selection and bidding process. Experiences from across the globe show that there is always a risk of potentially failed projects and the misuse of funds. "

Interview ahead of the Summit of the Americas

"If China doesn’t import goods from the United States, it’s going to import them from other countries...in that sense the disputes between China and the United States could bring opportunities."


"It is easy to vent anger against the Chinese, but who brought them in? It is Cameroonians that have led them to behave like they do."

By the Numbers

Data from RWR's IntelTrak tool

Data from RWR's IntelTrak tool

Domestic Developments

Policy Guidance

April 18: The State Council unveiled the new State International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDCA), two weeks after Wang Xiaotao was announced as the agency’s head. Wang, former Deputy Director of the National Development and Reform Commission, has a strong background in foreign capital, overseas investment, and trade negotiations within the Belt and Road framework. SIDCA will take on the foreign aid responsibilities of China’s Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and play a significant role in furthering the Belt and Road Initiative in developing countries.

Public Engagement

April 12: The People’s Bank of China and International Monetary Fundlaunched the Beijing-based China-IMF Capacity Development Center (CICDC), which will support officials from China and other Belt and Road countries in policy-making, personnel training, and institution-building. CICDC is one of several regional IMF capacity development centers.April 12: The United Nations Development Program’s 2018 High-Level Policy Forum on Global Governance took place in Guangzhou. The China Center for International Economic Exchanges co-hosted the forum, with support from China’s National Development and Reform Commission. This year’s forum was themed “Belt and Road Finance and Investment” and convened senior representatives from international financial institutions, the private sector, development agencies, and governments.April 23: The “China-South Africa Investment Seminar” was held in Beijing, sponsored by the China-Africa Development Fund. Attendees included representatives from Sinopec, Datang Group, Bank of China, Sany Heavy Industry, and China Construction Bank. The Fund plans to expand its role to increase investment in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors as well as promote advanced Chinese production capacity in African countries through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Regional Developments

East Asia and the Pacific

April 1o: China and Mongolia signed a series of agreements and memoranda of understandings during a recent state visit: China’s Ministry of Commerce and Mongolia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a memorandum of understanding on accelerating negotiations on establishing an intergovernmental agreement on developing bordering regions. The Export-Import Bank of China and Mongolia’s Ministry of Finance signed a loan agreement for financing the Erdenet thermal power plant modernization project. China’s National Markets Supervision Management Bureau signed a memorandum of understanding with Mongolia’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Light Industry on small-and-medium enterprise cooperation. Mongolia’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sciences, and Sports signed an agreement on educational exchange and cooperation with China’s Ministry of Education, and a memorandum of understanding with China's State General Administration of Sports on sports cooperation. The two governments also agreed to strengthen production capacity, build a new wastewater treatment plant in Ulaanbaatar, and for China to provide Mongolia with about $315 million in aid.April 18: China’s Ministry of Commerce and Mongolia’s Ministry of Environment, Green Development, and Tourism signed an agreement to implement a three-year project to save Mongolia’s critically endangered Gobi (Mazaalai) bear. The project will be funded by a $17.5 million donation from the Chinese government. The bears reside in Mongolia’s Great Gobi conservation area, which is their only habitat in the world.April 17: PowerChina Resources acquired an 80% stake in the development of Tasmania’s 150MW Cattle Hill Wind Farm. The seller, Xinjiang Goldwind Science & Technology subsidiary Goldwind Capital Australia, will retain 20% of the project. Renewable electricity generated by the wind farm will bepurchased by government electricity retailer Aurora Energy under a long-term contract.April 20: The New Zealand-China Economic and Trade Cooperation Seminarhosted by the Oceania Silk Road Network (OSRN) was held in Auckland, New Zealand with current and former politicians in attendance. OSRN was established under the Belt and Road Initiative to connect China and New Zealand’s government institutions, think tanks, industrial associations, and other bilateral actors.

Southeast Asia

April 12: China-Singapore (Chongqing) Strategic Connectivity Logistic Development and China-Singapore (Chongqing) Multimodal Transport & Logistic Development signed a joint venture and cooperation agreement todevelop the China-Singapore connectivity project’s South Passage. Chongqing’s southwestern location and manufacturing industry position the city as a potentially crucial hub for Belt and Road activity. South Passage seeks to reconfigure existing regional logistics patterns, connecting Chongqing through Singapore to the rest of Southeast Asia — and eventually South Asia, the Middle East, and other regions. The multimodal project will feature railways, highways, waterways, and air transport.April 13: Chinese companies signed a series of infrastructure agreements withIndonesia’s North Kalimantan province, valued at a speculative $39 billion: China Gezhouba Group International Engineering plans to build a $10 billion hydroelectric power plant in Sungai Kayan with Indonesia Dafeng Heshun Energy Industry, and a $10 billion industrial area in Bulungan with Adhidaya Suprakencana. East China Engineering Science and Technology plans to build a $700 million coal-to-dimethyl ether (DME) facility in Tanah Kuning with Dragon Land. Sinohydro Corporation will form a joint venture with Kayan Hydro Energy to build a $17 billion hydropower plant in Bulungan. Metallurgical Corporation of China plans to develop a $1.2 billion steel smelter with Prime Steel Indonesia. The countries also signed memoranda of understandings on developing the Tanah Kuning Mangkupadi Industrial Park in North Kalimantan and cooperating on electric vehicles. All speculative values are subject to change.April 15: Expanding on the series of bilateral agreements signed on the sidelines of the Boao Forum, China agreed to provide about $4 million in aid to support agricultural production in the Philippines. The Philippine Ministry of Agriculture will use the capital to upgrade the Philippine-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology (PhilSCAT)’s hybrid rice technology research and demonstration center.April 17: The China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences and the Laos Public Health Ministry’s Traditional Medicine Research Institute signed a memorandum of understanding on medicinal plants research cooperation. The two sides will conduct a medicinal resource census in Laos to compile a volume on “Flora of Laos.” There are also plans to jointly establish a traditional medicine research center and hold training on medicinal plant research.April 18: China and Thailand signed several cooperation agreements on Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Special Fund projects. China offered to provide $1.7 million from the fund to support rural e-commerce development, cross-border trade and logistic facility upgrades, and business exchange projects in Thailand.April 23: Chinese e-commerce conglomerate Alibaba Group signed a series of agreements and memoranda with Thai government entities: Alibaba Singapore E-Commerce Ltd. and Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor Office (EECO) signeda memorandum of understanding between on expanding Thai agricultural exports through Alibaba’s platform. Alibaba affiliate Cainiao Smart Logistics Network Hong Kong signed an agreement with EECO and Thailand’s Customs Department to establish a Smart Digital Hub to boost regional and global trade through e-commerce. Cainiao plans to invest about $351 million to develop the Smart Digital Hub, which will also support markets in Cambodia, LaosMyanmar, and Vietnam. Alibaba Business School signed a memorandum of understanding with Thailand’s Department of Industrial Promotion (DIP) and Department of International Trade Promotion (DITP) on developing digital training programs for Thai entrepreneurs. Alibaba subsidiary Zhejiang Fliggy Network Technology Company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) on promoting Thai tourism in secondary Chinese provinces, using Alibaba’s digital platforms for marketing and travel logistics.April 23: China’s Guangxi Beibu Gulf International Port Group andCambodia’s Try Pheap Group signed a cooperation agreement to conduct a feasibility study on constructing a deep-sea port in Kampot province. The proposed port would be able to accomodate large-scale vessels carrying up to 30,000 tons of cargo, nearly double the capacity of Cambodia’s existingSihanoukville deep-sea port.

South Asia

April 11: China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) plans to invest $800 million to build an underground road network to the Colombo Port City development in Sri Lanka, which is currently under construction by CCCC subsidiary China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). The proposed underground network would reduce overland traffic once the development is completed.March 30: Bank of China (BoC) opened its first branch in Sri Lanka, in the capital city of Colombo. The bank will help expand Sri Lanka’s ties with overseas manufacturers as part of international supply chains.March 31: The Export-Import Bank of China will provide $147.9 million andSri Lanka’s People’s Bank will provide the remaining $26.1 million to financeconstruction of Sri Lanka’s Thalapitigala hydropower reservoir. Sinohydro Corporation has been contracted to build the 15MW reservoir.April 2: China’s GCL System Integration Technology and Japan’s Softbank Investment signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a joint venture company in Andhra Pradesh, India to produce and sell solar module components. The joint venture is seeking funding up to $930 million.April 4: China announced plans to develop a 750-acre industrial park inBangladesh’s port city of Chittagong, primarily for Chinese manufacturing use. China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) will develop the park through a joint venture with the Bangladesh Special Economic Zone Authority (BSEZA).April 6: Pakistan delayed signing the second phase of its free trade agreement with China at the last minute due to reservations about Beijing’s list of concessions. The first phase of the agreement had given China duty concessions that led to an influx of Chinese goods and hurt local industries. The Faisalabad textile business community, in particular, has expressed concerns about further concessions in the new phase. A joint meeting of the National Assembly standing committees on finance and commerce will take place in the near future.

Middle East and North Africa

April 10: The China-Arab Beidou Center was inaugurated in Tunis, Tunisia by China’s National Space Administration (CNSA) and the Arab League’s Arab Information and Communication Technology Organization (AICTO) based in Tunisia. The center will showcase and promote China’s Beidou Navigation Satellite System (BDS), as well as provide joint satellite navigation research opportunities.April 10: Chinese clean energy company TBEA Sunoasis launched constructionof four solar power stations at the Benban Solar Energy Park in Aswan, Egypt. The stations will have an output of 186MW upon completion. Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) contributed partial financing to the $180 million project.April 14: Shanghai Electric Group signed an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contract with Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) to build a 700MW concentrated solar power (CSP) project in Dubai, UAE as the fourth phase of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. Shanghai Electric is the main contractor in a consortium including Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power and China’s Silk Road Fund. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) will act as the mandated lead arranger for loan financing, which Bank of China (BoC) and Agricultural Bank of China will also be involved in.April 19: Huawei Technologies Investment signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) to develop the country’s information and communication technology (ICT) talent by providing training opportunities for Saudi youths and establishing an innovation center for technology entrepreneurship.April 21: The Chinese Enterprises Association in Israel (CEAI) was establishedin Tel Aviv to promote bilateral economic and trade ties. Earlier this month, Beijing-based ZhongGuanCun Science Park (Z-Park) announced plans to open a liaison office in Tel Aviv to facilitate Chinese business operations in Israel and attract local tech talent to China.April 23: The Shanghai Stock Exchange (SSE) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) to develop an international Belt and Road Exchange primarily serving the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. The exchanges haven’t specified the types of instruments that will be traded on the new exchange.April 23: Iran’s National Petrochemical Company signed a memorandum of understanding with China Petroleum and Chemical Industry Federation (CPCIF) on building a petrochemical park in Iran. CPCIF is an organization comprised of various Chinese companies, institutes, and and associations in the petrochemical industry.

Sub-Saharan Africa

April 11: The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography (XIEG) received government approval to provide technical supportfor the African Union’s Great Green Wall initiative. XIEG will work specifically with MauritaniaNigeria, and Ethiopia to conduct environmental adaptability assessments and provide desertification prevention technologies in efforts to reverse desertification in the Sahel region.April 16: A Chinese medical team arrived at the Butha-Buthe Hospital inLesotho’s northern Butha-Buthe district for a week-long visit, coordinated by Lesotho’s Ministry of Health and China’s Ministry of Commerce. The team held academic lectures, paid ward visits, and donated medicine and equipment.April 16: The Nigerian branches of China Overseas Construction Group, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, PowerChina, China Gezhouba Group, Huawei Technologies, and China Harbour Engineering Companydonated office equipment to the Nigerian Office for Trade Negotiations. The donation was made in acknowledgment of China’s role in Nigeria’s economic development.April 17: The Chinese Embassy in Cairo and the General Authority for the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone) hosted the two-day China-Africa Special Economic Zone Cooperation Forum in Cairo, Egypt. Delegations from six African countries were in attendance.April 17: China donated $760,000 worth of information and communication technology (ICT) equipment and office furniture to Malawi’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Tourism. The donation is intended to facilitate Malawi’s industrialization process, which hundreds of Chinese companies are currently involved in, through projects like the Sogecoa Business Park, Blantyre Golden Peacock Hotel, and China-Malawi Cotton Company textile factory in Salima.April 18: Standard Chartered Bank held a “Belt and Road” themed customer appreciation event in Gaborone, Botswana with Chinese Embassy officials and Standard Chartered UK executives in attendance.April 20: A delegation from the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) arrived in Rusororo, Rwanda for a three-dayvisit with the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF-Inkotanyi). The Chinese Communist Party and RPF have had a relationship for two decades. During the visit, the two sides seek to exchange ideas on governance and political mass mobilization, and prepare for the upcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit in Beijing.April 20: China Aerospace Construction Group was awarded a construction contract by Kenya Urban Roads Authority for the first phase of the Kangundo Road and Eastern Bypass-Outer Ring Road upgrading project in eastern Nairobi. The company is currently also under contract to dredge and build the Kosachei dam in Eldoret, western Kenya.April 21: Cameroon’s Ministry of Industry, Mines, and Technological Development (MINMIDT) announced the ban of three Chinese companies from mining in East Cameroon, where they primarily operate in the gold-rich Bétaré Oya district. The companies, Peace Mining Corporation, Hong Kong Mining, and Lu & Lang, were found to be noncompliant with contractual terms. All three have allegedly contributed to environmental degradation and agricultural damage. Two had been mining without government authorization and the third has been tied to multiple local deaths. MINMIDT ordered the companies to halt operations earlier this month after conducting mining site raids.

Russia and Eurasia

April 10: Uzbekistan published its Priority Directions for the Development of Foreign Policy and External Economic Cooperation, which indicated the country’s intention to build the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and implement the Belt and Road Initiative through industrial park construction and infrastructure modernization. The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway was conceived in the 1990s, but has been stalled for various economic and geopolitical reasons.April 10: Huawei Technologies launched OpenLab Moscow, a showroom and research facility intended for joint technology development and testing. This is the tenth OpenLab facility that Huawei has established overseas, and will specifically focus on the finance, transportation, energy, oil and gas, and public safety sectors. Huawei is currently working with 51 Russiancompanies, and will offer remote facility access to partners through its Lab-as-a-Service model.April 17: The Astana International Finance Center (AIFC) signed several memoranda of cooperation with Chinese financial service providers, including Shenwan Hongyuan Group, Haitong Securities, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and CITIC Securities. Kazakhstan-based AIFCseeks to become a financial hub for Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and western China.April 19: The China-Russia Biopharmaceutical Technology Transfer and Innovation Center in Shanghai was unveiled on the opening day of the third annual "Belt and Road" China-Russian Forum on Science and Technology Cooperation. The center will provide technology transfer services and introduce new cooperation projects between China and Russia.April 20: The first meeting of the Sino-Tajik Cooperation Committee was held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan to discuss scientific and technological cooperation. The Tajik Academy of Sciences, China's Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Gansu Science and Technology Department co-organized the event in recognition of Tajikistan’s importance as a gateway for the Belt and Road Initiative. The Gansu Academy of Membrane Science and Technology, Institute of Business Technology, and Productivity Promotion Center signed several cooperation agreements with their Tajik counterparts.


April 10: Bank of Shanghai and Spain’s Banco Santander signed a memorandum of understanding on Belt and Road strategic cooperation, with a specific focus on Europe and Latin America. The banks will jointly providefinancial services to Chinese enterprises investing overseas, including trade finance and corporate loans.April 12: Denmark’s Financial Services Authority (FSA) approved Zhejiang Geely Holding Group’s proposed acquisition of a majority stake in Saxo Bank, a Danish investment bank specializing in online trading. The acquisition still requires several other regulatory approvals, currently pending.April 13: People’s Bank of China and Bank of Albania extended their bilateral local currency swap agreement, originally signed in 2013. Through the agreement, the central banks can access up to $318.5 million in each other’s local currency as needed.April 13: New resident companies signed agreements to establish operations at the China-Belarus Great Stone Industrial Park in Minsk. These include SZAO Aviation Technologies and Systems, a joint venture between Belarus’ National Academy of Sciences (NASB) and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) which plans to develop high-tech products like unmanned aerial vehicles.April 13: The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Serbia held a Serbia-China investment and trade forum in Belgrade, during a delegation visit by China’s Council for Promoting South-South Cooperation. Representatives from Chinese and Serbian businesses were in attendance, seeking cooperation opportunities in sectors including infrastructure, agriculture, and technology.April 15: A delegation of Chinese farmers traveled to Belgium to learn about agricultural sustainability and innovation through an exchange programorganized by China's Ministry of Agriculture and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development. Site visits included the European Commission, BelOrta vegetable and fruit auction, and Belgium’s Research Station for Vegetable Growing. The delegation plans to visit the UK and Estonia in the following weeks.April 16: China’s e-commerce company JD.com announced the launch of its Spanish-language platform, Joybuy.es, at the World Retail Conference inSpain. The platform had begun beta testing the week before, selling primarily Chinese-made goods to Spanish and Latin American customers. JD.com plans to open a local warehouse by the end of the year, to facilitate direct deliveries.April 18: The Chinese Academy of Sciences announced it signed an agreement earlier this month with the Finnish Meteorological Institute’s Space and Earth Observation Center to establish a joint research center for Arctic space observation and data sharing. Specifically, the two sides plan to enhance cooperation on cryosphere research with the use of satellites. The center will be built in Sodankylä, in Finland’s Lapland region as part of China’s Digital Belt and Road Program for environmental monitoring.April 19: A business delegation led by Estonia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications visited Beijing, where the two sides discussed digital, logistics, and e-commerce cooperation. During the visit, GTS Rail, a subsidiary of Estonian logistics company GTS Express, signed a cooperation agreement with Xi’an International Inland Port Multimodal Transportation to launch a new freight train route from Xi’an to Muuga Harbour, which is Estonia’s largest cargo port. The trains will begin arriving in June.April 23: China’s Heng’an Group signed an agreement to acquire 36.5% ofFinnish pump producer Finnpulp for $14.29 million, with the option of raising its stake to 49%. The two companies will jointly develop a major softwood pulp plant in Kuopio, eastern Finland.

North America

April 13: Several commercial agreements were signed between Chinese and Canadian companies during the Canadian creative industry trade mission visit to China, valued at nearly $125 million. These include agreements for theater tours, concert performances, literacy partnerships, licensing agreements, and film co-production agreements. Many Chinese and Canadian museums also signed collaborative agreements to jointly strengthen China-Canada public dialogue in science, education, technology, and culture.April 20: U.S.-based Citibank signed memoranda of understandings with Bank of China (BoC) and China Merchants Bank to support Belt and Road-related projects and investments. Citi plans to explore ways to cooperate with the Chinese banks in sectors including infrastructure, power and energy, telecommunications, oil and gas, and agriculture. Previously, Citi served as BoC’s sole global coordinator on $10 billion in Belt and Road bond issuances.

Latin American and the Caribbean

April 24: China’s CRRC Qingdao Sifang signed a $278 million contract with the Argentine Ministry of Transport to supply 200 electrical multiple unit (EMU) train cars and related parts for the Roca line in Buenos Aires. The cars will supplement the existing fleet of 42 CRRC EMUs already in service, and facilitate the withdrawal of outdated Toshiba EMUs.

If you enjoy our Belt and Road coverage, consider checking out IntelTrak: RWR's visual analytic tool that tracks and maps the global activities of Chinese and Russian companies in real time.

RWR Advisory Group is a Washington DC-based research and advisory firm that specializes in the risks present at the intersection of global business activity and national security concerns