China: National Defence in a New Era

                                              Linking Dreams with Reality

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article is forthcoming in the September 2019 issue of Geopolitics http://www.geopolitics.in/

The Chinese news agency Xinhua announced on 24 July 2019 that China had issued a white paper to “expound on its defensive national defence policy in the new era and explain the practice, purposes and significance of China’s efforts to build a fortified national defence and a strong military.” Titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era,” the paper was released by the State Council Information Office with a view, as the Council suggested, to helping the international community better understand China’s national defence. It is the tenth white paper on national defence that the government has issued since 1998 and the first comprehensive one since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012.

At a macro-level the Paper responds to a perceived shift in global strategies, as major players retract from a focus on counter-terrorism and extremism to an acute slant on competition, rivalry, and friction. It flags the fact that China in its bid to revise the global order on its terms is now a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they will be able to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests. The document describes Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity and underscores the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting should there be intervention of any nature on this account. It notes in cavalier fashion “countries from outside the region conduct frequent close-in surveillance by air and sea, enter China’s territorial waters and the airspace near China’s islands and reefs undermining China’s national security.” Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their newly established but discordant Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) of 2013, the 9-Dash (10-Dash after 2013) line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, contravening major tenets of the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) and breaching of international law.

Unlike Chinese White Papers of the past which focused blandly on China’s questionable “peaceful” intent and not very convincing views of ‘win-win’ cooperation, the 2019 edition highlights China’s military development as a national riposte to what it considers as the challenges that it is faced with. The main body of the white paper is divided into six thematic sections:

  • The international security situation
  • China’s defensive national defence policy in the new era
  • Fulfilling missions and tasks of China’s armed forces in the new era
  • Reform in China’s national defence and armed forces
  • Reasonable and appropriate defence expenditure
  • Actively contributing to building a community with a shared future for mankind.

Some statistics are featured in the 27,000-character document, 10 tables on topics such as a cursory breakdown of China’s defence expenditure have been attached and listing of international cooperation activities is included in the appendices.”

International Security & Visions of a New Global Order

The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterized by greater multi-polarity and its aspirations to exercise control amongst what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny.” It also outlines its strategic objectives, in the quest for which Beijing will neither accommodate nor soften its position. The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests.

“National Defence in a New Era” is a continuum on the official narrative of China’s emergence as a great power with global influence. In discussing the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of a community with shared destiny” and then deduces that they are therefore in harmony with Beijing’s ideological make-up. While the questionable nature of the ‘grand assumption’ throws up a flawed deduction; what comes next is disquieting. It is the illusory context of the document linking China’s defence directly to the notion of a “community of common destiny for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning for that very community. The question being, is the new era envisaged by China an emerging reality? And is its model of governance acceptable and appropriate for this reality? For if not (as it seems most likely) the prospects of friction and disruption loom large.

China’s Defensive National Defence Policy

The Document links the creation of a new world order with Xi Jinping’s discourse on the “China Dream,” which urges the People’s Republic to push forward the “great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and strive to achieve the  dream of “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation to the status of the world’s dominant power. The narrative is now expanded in the White Paper to argue that a more powerful Chinese military is essential to this global dream. The paper attempts to reframe the trajectory of Chinese military modernization by claiming: “A strong military of China is a staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” This assertion is intended to reassure China’s neighbours about the rise of Chinese military power, which has progressed at a speed and scale that have often provoked concerns, arguing that this instead is a boon for the region. What is apparent is that the construct and its strategic linkages are short on specifics and niggardly on how to put the dream into practice.

Although  China’s aspiration to exercise a leading influence in global governance and contribute to reforms of that system are hardly surprising, this is for the first time that the military has been so directly and officially connected to the agenda of revisionism. However, declarations to “build  a security architecture  through partnerships rather than alliances”  become confusing when one attempts to situate the deepening  Sino-Russian defence linkages in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, this partnership is starting to take on certain features of a military alliance, involving “the development of exchange mechanisms at all levels, expanded cooperation, military training and technology transfers.” Military cooperation had notably extended to the People’s Liberation Army’s participation in Russia’s Vostok exercise in September 2018. It will be recalled that the war-game is Russia’s annual strategic exercise spread over two months and across vast regional spaces to develop the ability to conduct large-scale combined arms war that correlate doctrines and coordinate Command and Control. To fully appreciate the scale of operations the 2018 edition involved over 300,000 personnel.

Fulfilling New Missions, Signaling of Red Lines and Resolve

“China’s National Defense in a New Era” is clearly intended to send strong signals to a global audience. However, communication of redlines and resolve often stand in stark contradiction to the discourse on China’s commitment to “world peace,” and claims of its policies and strategic intentions being purely defensive. On Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang and its territorial claims in the South China Sea the Paper states “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures that target adversarial alliances, interventions and  intimidating deployments”.  These threats are awkwardly juxtaposed with the assertion that China will “never seek hegemony, expansion, or spheres of influence.” From Beijing’s perspective, the notion of “reunification” and defending national sovereignty may be justified and described so, but such an objective is inherently offensive, unilateral and disruptive of the status quo.

Reforms and China’s Concept of National Security 

The Document notes that for this new era, concerns of political security remains critical to the Communist Party of China (CPC). It highlights the imperative for China’s national defence to “assure political security, people’s security and social stability” and in terms of national priority it is listed second only to “deter and resist aggression.” In this context, the introduction of the concept of “people’s security” which is seen as the “soul” and core purpose of national security, alludes to the factors required for improvement of the “people’s well-being,” reflecting underlying connections between national defence and continued development. Increasingly, there are also concerns about threats to social stability in new domains, especially cyberspace. The security and survival of the regime is an absolute imperative for the CPC, and China’s armed forces are required to pre-empt and neutralize such eventualities.

As far as nuclear forces are concerned, its form and content have largely been consistent over the years. China has reaffirmed its commitment to a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones. China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security. It pursues a nuclear strategy of self-defence, the goal of which is to maintain national strategic security by deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China.

Defence Expenditure: Reasonable or Unfathomable?

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the paper is a relatively more detailed treatment of the defence budget than the 2010 edition (statement on defence budget was absent from the 2013 and 2015 versions). The 2010 paper stated, China’s defence expenditure mainly comprises expenses for personnel, training and maintenance, and equipment; with each budget group accounting for roughly one third of the total”. In the 2019 Paper, subcomponents of the three groups of expenditure  are updated slightly, but significant changes in distribution is apparent. Since 2015, as the PLA has reduced personnel, retired old equipment, and purchased new weapon systems, “equipment expenses” amount to over 40 per cent (approximately $62 billion) of the total budget of $151 billion while personnel expenses have fallen to about 31 per cent ($47 billion), and training and maintenance to 28 per cent ($42 billion). The reasons cited for budget increases are five-fold: enhanced salaries and troop welfare; equipment modernisation; support reforms (which include personnel and unit transfers); improved training; and conduct of peacekeeping, constabulary, humanitarian and disaster relief operations. This order appears consistent with the budgetary allocation, as the PLA has downsized by roughly 13 per cent. The reduced allocation for training may suggest that the PLA has cut back on ‘mass’ manoeuvres, concentrating on developing specialised task oriented battle groups and small-unit proficiencies. However what remains opaque is a breakdown of the budget for Capital, Revenue and Strategic expenditure.

As China compares itself with the other major powers in terms of defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP; at 1.3% it likens rather well from a pacific stand-point. However, what remains obscured is the expenditure on military related infrastructure, defense production and strategic programmes.

Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in defence deals is hailed specifically as, “the struggle having won an overwhelming victory, establishing a positive environment of political and moral correctness.” Pointedly calling out and cracking down on Generals Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Fang Fenghui, and Zhang Yang for their “grave violations of Party discipline and state laws.” However, it is hard to judge whether these generals were purged for corruption or for being potential challengers to Xi’s authority.

Building a Community with a Shared Future

While the Paper attempts both to articulate a vision of global security in which China is a driving force for “world peace,” and to establish unambiguous red lines as to what threatens China’s sovereignty, security, and development; what is significant, nuanced or otherwise,  is the absence of any details of separatist activities as indeed the nature and condition of ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang. One wonders, what Xi’s “new era” holds in terms of the shared future for the over 11 million Muslim Uighurs in China’s restive western province of Xinjiang.  According to un-verified reports over two million Uighurs and other minorities, including Islamic Kazakhs and Uzbeks, have been detained since April 2017. Outside of the internment camps, the eleven million Uighurs living in Xinjiang have continued to suffer from a decade-long ethnic cleansing and re-culturing by Chinese authorities. While inside the camps, having no legal avenues to challenge their detention, there is no way of assessing the extent of brutality or brain washing that they are subjected to including behaviour modification in exchange for a dim and doltish rehabilitation . The reasons that may bring about incarceration, according to media reports, include traveling to or contacting people from any of the twenty-six countries China considers sensitive, such as Turkey and Afghanistan; attending services at mosques; sending texts containing Quranic verses and often the inmate’s only crime is being Muslim. One puzzles if this is the new era?

The Paper takes an aggressive no-compromise stand on the integration of Taiwan to the extent of the use of unequivocal military force with the ominous call that Taiwan “will and must merge and consolidate with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”. Prominent is the strident nationalist bellow for the integrity of the country as a foundational interest of the Chinese nation essential to realizing national rejuvenation. Additionally the on-going disruption in the financial capital Hong Kong do not in any way inspire either success in assimilation or the idea of  “one-nation-two-systems”.

The White Paper makes much of China’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations and even goes on to declare that it is the largest troop contributing country among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). However it must be remembered that the other four permanent members have been rather artful in their choice of engagement and have hardly ever committed  their troops in UN sponsored peace keeping missions unless their interests were directly involved or threatened; the United Nations Command established in 1950 to prosecute the war in Korea was led and comprised almost entirely of US forces , the US and Canada supported forces in Eygpt in the 1956 Suez crisis, the 1992  NATO involvement in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia Serbia and Herzegovina , France in Senegal and the Ivory Coast in 2013 or Britain in Afghanistan and Cyprus. All these examples are suggestive of permanent members being selective about their involvement. And so it is with China and therefore no surprises that their focus is on Africa where it has invested heavily and the Middle East for its energy security.

Conclusion

This “new era” of China’s national defence is characterized by change and continuity in China’s global outlook and expanding interests. At a time when the lone super power strategizes for a new era of great power rivalry, the 2019 Chinese posture may in parts appear to present a conciliatory picture. However, intentions to reform global governance, persistence with its claims in the South China Sea, a cavalier approach to international conventions and an illusory security architecture predicated on a “community with a shared future” revealed in the document are nonetheless disconcerting. China may soon be confronted by a rude awakening as this vision for a revised order, self-promotion and security is met with intense internal and external stresses. And all the while since 1998 when the key theme of China’s defence policy was cooperation, Beijing’s military today is inexorably being drawn into, what appears to be, an inevitable clash with forces that uphold the status-quo.

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Shangri-La Dialogue 2019: The Shadow of China

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar 

Published in the author’s column, “The Strategist” on the IPCS Web journal, and may be accessed at: http://ipcs.org/comselect.php?articleNo=5609

The Shangri-La Dialogue is an Asian security summit held annually at Singapore; this year the eighteenth summit was held between 31 May and 02 June. And in a grand affirmation of design, its director general declared, “it is a unique meeting where ministers debate the region’s many pressing security challenges, engage in bilaterals and come up with fresh solutions together.” Yet the central and perhaps the only theme that loomed over the 2019 edition was the strategic road taken by China over the years: from ideology, mass and foment to growth, revision and regional domination. China’s participation was remarkable not just for the level of its delegate–the defence minister General Wei Shenghe, but also for the resolve to hold sway in the region that he so candidly declared. Unfortunately, it was not debate that defined deliberations but the impending pay-back for a “hundred years (since the opium wars) of humiliation” and the probability of a breakdown of the status-quo without an alternative.

That China’s stunning growth had shifted the strategic centre of gravity of the world, is a reality; however, what startled was China’s unabashed announcement that the world will now have to “adapt to its success” and it can no longer be subjected to the “iniquities” of the past. A clear statement of disaffection with the current order and a burial of Deng’s strategy to “hide-power-and-bide-time”

What is emerging is an international order on China’s terms that would amount to little else but a “monocracy” since China has taken no step to convince through actions that its objectives are directed towards a more even-handed order and its methods are neither authoritarian nor mercantilist. Their dealings in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Guinea, or for that matter engagement with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) since 2001 are stark reminders of just the opposite.

It may be recalled that in 2001, China’s trade accounted for 4% of world trade. Those were times when much of the developed world was and today continues to reel under the impact of high cost labour, an aging and low-productive demography. Today, China’s share of world trade has almost tripled to 11.8%. Concessions negotiated when it joined the WTO are no longer politically tenable; neither for those that bestowed this largesse nor for others in competition. A regime more consistent with present-day China’s state of development would appear the order of the day. Indeed, it may be argued that the fall-out of the petrodollar system that boosted the US Dollar as the globally accepted reserve currency creates an immediate and persistent artificial demand for it. This, quite unfairly, benefits only the US and the oil cartel. Making it a distressing paradox that calls for reforms to the WTO.

In the context of military power, China’s defence expenditure is the second-largest in the world; its policies carry weight, often provoke, arouse suspicion and invariably acted upon from a security perspective. China’s “right to build infrastructure and deploy defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea,” is emphasised in the latest iteration of its Defence White Paper (22 Jul 2019). So, its strategies of Anti-Access-Area-Denial, developing the “Assassin’s Mace,” creation of confounding Air Defence Identification Zones and activities in the South China Sea to create a “maritime great wall” are symptomatic not just of safe guarding its interests, but to dominate the region with no legitimacy. Friction is mounting in these waters and China is not inclined to resolve these disputes with other stake holders. Neither  international law nor the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) seem to evoke any reverence whether it be their  “9-Dash line,” military bases on the Mischief Reef (EEZ of Philippines’), artificial islands along the way or the dispute over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Nevertheless, China insists that the situation in the South China Sea is stable citing, intriguingly, the “100,000 ships” that sail through  every year as evidence that there is no threat to trade plying there while denouncing “countries outside the region that have come to the South China Sea to flex muscles in the name of freedom of navigation.” Such power-declarations hardly lend itself to the idea of a China that can be relied and respected to support a durable regional environment. China, however, remains ostensibly oblivious to the fact that the strategic pivot of the world has long shifted to the Indo-Pacific, making stake holders in these waters from far beyond the region.

Meanwhile, global stresses have built up over multiple issues relating to cyber espionage, human rights and to the seduction of 5G technologies (in dealing with the last, future generations will no doubt wonder with what ease nations gave in to technologies that hold the potential of creating Orwellian control). China, which has aggressively been spearheading 5G would appear to have regressed in terms of political openness, military bullying, creation of a Sino-centric economic bloc and a disdainful approach to international law. This strategic orientation will probably augur well for China’s aspirations but hardly so for global prospects.

China’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is ambitious and comes with its share of controversies. It has also rapidly increased China’s overall risk profile. Added to China’s internal debt, excess capacity, increasing labour costs and high ratio of investment to growth; the prospects of increased recurrence of a “Hambantota” are portentous. The Centre for Global Development (CGD) has, in no uncertain terms, concluded that Beijing, encourages dependency using opaque contracts, rapacious loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt to undercut their sovereignty; their infrastructural dealings with Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan, and Tajikistan are stark reminders of how predatory economic policies work (CGD Policy Paper 121 of March 2018). In the meantime the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir had in 2018 announced the shelving of two major projects, part of China’s signature BRI to avert falling into an obsequious debt trap. And as we speak the Business and Financial Week, a Pakistani periodical (Dawn) reported on 15 July that China has reminded the government, of the grave consequences of reneging on the earlier signed China Pakistan Economic Corridor contractual obligations; now what could that mean?

 

South Asia: Post Crisis Brief (Balakot)

Published by:

The Nuclear Crisis Group

Read the entire brief here: https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/South-Asia-Post-Crisis-Brief.pdf

Contributors to the dossier: Vice Admiral (ret.) Vijay Shankar, General (ret.) Jehangir Karamat, Dr. Manpreet Sethi, Sadia Tasleem,  Dr. Toby Dalton, and Dr. Vipin Narang.

Balakot: the Strike Across the Line

by

Vice Admiral (Ret.) Vijay Shankar

A former Chief Minister of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir in the immediate wake of the February 26, 2019 Balakot strike by the Indian Airforce remarked: “Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) hit Indian forces and claimed the attack. In turn, Indian forces hit JeM and owned that air strike.” The problem with this credulous statement, on the one hand, is that it persists in viewing a string of terrorist acts as one-offs; and on the other hand, it fails to discern the victim from the villain.

In distinguishing between victim of an act of terror and the terrorist, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 51/210 of 1996 makes clear what defines the act: “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them.” Furthermore, the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy of 2006 enjoins member states “to refrain from organizing, instigating, facilitating, participating in, financing, encouraging or tolerating terrorist activities and to take…measures to ensure that…respective territories are not used for terrorist installations or training camps, or for the preparation or organization of terrorist acts intended to be committed against other States or their citizens.” The right to respond, pre-emptive or reactive, to an act of terror is enshrined in the same document.

Additionally, the Pulwama terror attack of February 14 being perceived as a ‘one-off’ is far more hazardous as it distorts any concept of response while at the same time skewing mass perception of the character of that act of terror. The Pulwama vehicular bombing must be seen as one of a series of terror attacks beginning with the assault on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, the atrocity of killing soldier’s families at Kaluchak in 2002, the terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008, the strikes on Pathankot and Uri in 2016 and now Pulwama. Incidentally, all these attacks were (as evidence indicates) planned in coordination with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and executed by the Pakistan-based internationally outlawed terror outfit, the JeM. Restraint-in-response, which characterized the Indian military rejoinder prior to the Uri terror assault, has been replaced by cross-Line of Control (LoC) punitive strikes that were undertaken to move on the offensive, surgically hit designated terror targets, and return to base; all with speed and precision. Retribution for Pulwama was delivered by airpower that blinded and then sliced through Pakistan air defenses to deliver their precision payloads deep in Pakistani territory to the terror infrastructure of the JeM at Balakot where over
300 new jihadi recruits reportedly were undergoing fidayeen training in preparation for attacks in India.  For Pakistan, the awkward reality was that its two major benefactors, China and Saudi Arabia, did not back it. Was this another nail in the coffin for the Pakistani strategy of nurturing Islamist terror groups and militants as instruments to bleed India? Is the myth of waging unconventional warfare against the Indian State with impunity under the umbrella of nuclear weapons now standing on thin ice?

The following day, the Pakistan Air Force mounted a retaliatory air strike, which was thwarted by Indian air defences. It was not clear what the Pakistani targets were since they were unable to either strike any installations or penetrate defenses. In the skirmish, one Indian Mig-21 was shot down and its pilot captured while the Indian Air Force claimed downing a Pakistani F-16. It is hypothetical to speculate what the Indian reaction may have been had the Pakistani force package reached their targets. Within 48 hours, the captured Indian pilot was returned. It is possible this act served to defuse the situation but it is not clear whether the return was achieved through internal decision-making or external pressure.

It may be premature to analyze the lessons to be learned from the Balakot air strikes, particularly at the tactical or the operational level as there would be many. However, a macro evaluation suggests four salient takeaways:

First, there has been a strategic revisit of the Indian policy of restraint-in-response to terror attacks on India or its assets anywhere (remember the attack on the Indian consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif in 2016) by the JeM or any other Pakistan-sponsored jihadi groups. Hitherto, thinking at the highest levels of India’s political leadership was influenced by the probability that any major trans-LoC strike using airpower would be deemed escalatory. Post-Balakot, the Indian military is less likely to be constrained by the Line or the border in conducting retaliatory precision strikes on non-military terror-related targets as long as it is clear that the Pakistan State is doctrinally, logistically, and materially behind these terror strikes.

Second, India is focused on targeting jihadi terror infrastructure. The dismantlement of those targets by Pakistan or by other means provides the first mechanism for negotiations between Delhi and Islamabad.

Third, the impact on other regional states and major international players not only set up a favourable environ for the furtherance of the campaign against terror but likewise energized Pakistan’s immediate neighbours, who are also victims of state-sponsored terror, to take similar offensive action.

Four, the growing precision and briskness of intelligence—whether human, electronic, cyber, space-based, or through interstate cooperation—has enhanced the ability to plan and conduct surgical strikes against terror targets.

Addressing the issue of how best to manage a future occurrence begins with the understanding that India’s pacific tolerance to terror attacks sponsored by Pakistan and emanating from their territory is not unlimited and will be rejoined by reactive or pre-emptive military action which may not be geographically restricted to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In this perspective, that the Pakistan Army have backed jihadist groups and shielded wanted terrorists like Hafiz Sayyed, Dawood Ibrahim, and Masood Azar are well recognised facts. The real problem is that this duplicity, notoriously dubbed the strategy of a “thousand cuts,” is part of the Pakistani establishment’s policy. To dismantle the terror infrastructure in Pakistan that target India, and to bring to book jihadi terror groups, such as JeM or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), would greatly serve the interest of averting the prospects of recurrence. In the long term, there is no getting away from the pressing need for civil control of the Pakistan deep state (ISI-military combine).

On the issue of the absence of escalation, two considerations may have played a part. First, the nature of the air strikes were designated by the Indian Government as “pre-emptive” air strikes directed against non-military terror infrastructure. The strikes were limited in scope, intensity, and time. Second, the terror averse international environment and the persuasive powers of the United States and Saudi Arabia appear to have been at play. Both states hold Pakistan’s economic jugular at a time when the Pakistani economy is in a quagmire. The reluctance of China either to support Pakistan or to get involved must have been a dampener to any thought by Pakistan to further escalate. From the nuclear stand point, there was neither rhetoric nor any reported attempt to reach for the trigger by either side. This may be an indication of a developing balance and perspicacity as to where nuclear thresholds lie on both sides.

The Balakot air strikes are far too recent for all verified facts to have emerged and, therefore, to stitch together an exhaustive analysis may not be a practical proposition currently. Yet the significance of the incident is very apparent, for it revolves around one notable condition of the international milieu: how long can the global community endure the presence of a state that nurtures and sponsors terrorism so much so that it is today considered the epicentre of global terrorism?