The threat spectrum

Planet A 

In response to rising sea levels, 10 Pacific nations are mapping their remote island territories to secure permanent rights to exclusive economic zones (EEZs). These small island states, including Fiji, Tuvalu and Kiribati, hold a combined maritime area of over 40 million square kilometres. This territory is critical to the economic interests of Pacific nations, which generate income from selling fishing licences to international fishery companies. In 2019, the region accounted for 55% of total global tuna catches.

The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea assigns a 200-nautical-mile EEZ to inhabitable islands, but as rising sea levels swallow coastal territories, these nations fear their EEZs will shrink. And if low-lying islands are abandoned, the UNCLOS framework would reclassify them as uninhabitable ‘rocks’, nullifying EEZ claims and opening these areas up for international use.

This issue exposes limitations in UNCLOS’s ability to respond to the impacts of climate change on territorial jurisdiction. The intersection of climatic, economic and maritime territorial issues has consequences for coastal regions globally as sea levels continue to rise.

Democracy watch

People across the US have gathered to protest against anti-Asian hate crimes, following the Atlanta spa shootings on 16 March and an assault on a 75-year-old Asian American woman the following day.

Racially motivated hate crimes have been more common since the outbreak of Covid-19. The US Asian community has been increasingly targeted over the past year, in part as a consequence of President Donald Trump’s framing of the pandemic as the ‘China virus’. The recent attacks and ongoing harassment of Asian Americans have once again highlighted the handling of racial discrimination in America and renewed awareness of race-based conflict.

Information operations

A report declassified by the US National Intelligence Council has assessed foreign threats to last year’s election. The report identifies several nations that considered or attempted online influence campaigns, but pays particular attention to Russian intelligence operatives’ use of US media organisations and people linked to the Trump administration to promote damaging narratives about presidential candidate Joe Biden and his family to US officials.

Writing for The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum notes that the report highlights broader issues beyond the political climate created by Trump. It shows that Russian disinformation succeeds because of the willingness of many Americans to accept sensational information when it suits their partisan frames and can be used against their opponents, and an unwillingness of institutions like the FBI, the Department of Justice and the US Congress to investigate and prosecute Americans linked to disinformation attempts for fear of political backlash.

Unless accountability for Americans involved in election influence and disinformation bridges the partisan political divide, Russian influence operations will continue to pose a serious threat to democracy in the US.

Follow the money

The UK parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee has urged the government to amend the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to protect ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. This action comes after an ASPI report on Uyghur forced labour in supply chains used by companies in the technology, fashion, media and cotton industries.

The committee asked a number of corporations to clarify their relationships with forced-labour supply chains in Xinjiang. Most companies claimed to have strong protections on human rights but failed to prove that their supply chains weren’t involved in forced labour. Nike and H&M, for example, said that, while they couldn’t identify connections to forced labour, they would strive to improve their practices.

The committee also recommended that the government put the onus on companies to prove that they have no ties to forced labour. And despite global attention on human rights violations in Xinjiang—which China denies—real progress to end forced labour has yet to be seen.

Terror byte

Last week, ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess announced that his agency will use different terminology to identify violent extremist threats. Instead of labelling terror groups as ‘right-wing’ or ‘Islamic’, ASIO will now classify threats as ‘ideologically motivated’ or ‘religiously motivated’ violent extremism. In delivering his annual threat assessment, Burgess said ‘language needs to evolve’ to include extremist groups that recruit members online and do not typically fit within the parameters of the previous terms.

Some have welcomed the change in the hope that it will decrease prejudicial language directed at Muslim communities. Others have described the decision as part of a continued political effort to avoid using terms like ‘right-wing’ or ‘far-right’ to describe the groups that now account for 40% of ASIO’s counterterrorism cases.