Expert opinion: MH17 tragedy shows the cost of the New Great Game in Central Asia

As China steps in to support Russia after the downing of flight MH17, Dr Lingling Mao, senior lecturer in China Studies at the School of Arts and Humanities, discusses the relationship between Europe and Asia.

When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a missile over Ukraine, it immediately sparked finger-pointing between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government. While Britain and America have implicated Russia in the missile attack, commentators in the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese government, claim that Russia is the most unlikely country to be involved in this attack.

China's support for Russia in time of crisis resonates Russia's act in May this year, when China and Vietnam were in dispute over an oil rig in the South China Sea. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, flew to Shanghai, sealing a $400 billion gas deal and declaring the China-Russia tie would enter a new stage.

It seems that when China and Russia face pressure from the West in recent affairs, especially from the USA, a united front is put forward. But how close are these political allies?

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the post-Soviet states began to look for patrons to maximize political sovereignty and secure the survival of their regimes. China was amongst one of the first few countries that entered the scene, primarily out of its own need for the Central Asia natural gas and oil reserves, as well as to stabilize and prevent separation of the ethnically Uyghur Xinjiang automatic region.

The Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) was initiated in 1996, later developing into Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, including Uzbekistan as a sixth member.

It seems that when China and Russia face pressure from the West in recent affairs a united front is put forward.

Dr Lingling Mao, senior lecturer in China Studies

When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a missile over Ukraine, it immediately sparked finger-pointing between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government. While Britain and America have implicated Russia in the missile attack, commentators in the People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese government, claim that Russia is the most unlikely country to be involved in this attack.

China's support for Russia in time of crisis resonates Russia's act in May this year, when China and Vietnam were in dispute over an oil rig in the South China Sea. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, flew to Shanghai, sealing a $400 billion gas deal and declaring the China-Russia tie would enter a new stage.

It seems that when China and Russia face pressure from the West in recent affairs, especially from the USA, a united front is put forward. But how close are these political allies?

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the post-Soviet states began to look for patrons to maximize political sovereignty and secure the survival of their regimes. China was amongst one of the first few countries that entered the scene, primarily out of its own need for the Central Asia natural gas and oil reserves, as well as to stabilize and prevent separation of the ethnically Uyghur Xinjiang automatic region.

The Shanghai Five (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) was initiated in 1996, later developing into Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, including Uzbekistan as a sixth member.

Some of the former Soviet states, however, have turned to the Europe. The Eastern Partnership (EaP) was inaugurated by the European Union in 2009, governing its relationship with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

As the natural successor to the Soviet Union, Russia has been at pains to see its former republics move into different camps other than its own. If SCO Russia still shares the hegemony with China, in EaP Russia has no say and these former republics look set to be forever lost from its grip.

Much to the dismay of Russia, the USA's interest in the region significantly increased post 9/11 – most notably in Afghanistan. But Ukraine, too, has tragically become the muscle-flexing battlefield between the USA, the West and Russia. As a republic with the third biggest land area and the breadbasket in the former Soviet Union, Ukraine is one of Putin's most important assets. So, despite the 2004 Orange Revolution and Ukraine's consequent Europe-leaning policy tilting them away from the Kremlin, Russia is reluctant to let it go.

As early as 1994 the President of Kazakhstan invented the idea of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), but it was Vladimir Putin who incorporated the EEU into a grand vision. As his third presidency election manifestation in October 2011, he outlined the rationale for the Eurasian Economic Union saying that he drew lessons from the integration of post-War Europe and proposed the Union as a comparable economic structure to the European Union (EU). The EEU will have six members by its full completion in 2015 and the key members are almost identical to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, only substituting China and Uzbekistan with Belarus and Armenia. But if Russia has no plan to get rid of China over the rivalry interest in Central Asia, why not just carry on with the SCO?

It is often the political elites who gain most from the interest and patronage of the global powers around them.

Dr Lingling Mao

What, then, is China's reaction towards Putin's master plan? China is not insensitive to Russia's high-profile plan. In September 2013, China proposed a Silk Road Economic Belt in Kazakhstan, aiming to bring together Asia and Europe involving twenty four cities and eight countries. In March 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on China and Germany to work together during his visit to the country. This project has shown a lot more than just words with China investing $100 billion in Q3 2013 alone.

With these 'big three' organisations locked into constant competition, some of the most important former Soviet states have received multiple invitations. For example, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are listed in the SCO, EEU and Silk Road Economic Belt; Belarus and Armenia are in the EEU and EaP and Georgia is in the EaP and Silk Road Economic Belt. It has been suggested[1] that this has allowed these states to manipulate and play off the economic and security interests of the great powers, strengthening the sovereignty of their states as well as increasing their political and economic leverage over domestic political competitors.

Central Asia is, in many respects, a peripheral region. Because all three contemporary great powers have invested interests to further their own security, it has therefore become central on the global strategic checkerboard. But the risks and costs of being a small state on the periphery of bigger powers has been made evident in the current Ukraine conflict, which provided the context for the MH17 tragedy.

Even when it comes to benefiting, it is often the political elites who gain most from the interest and patronage of the global powers around them. And the common and innocent tend to be the most vulnerable. Beyond the finger-pointing blame game, it is time again to reassess the roles of big power players in this region to avoid any further devastating consequences.

Dr. Lingling Mao
Senior Lecturer in China Studies
School of Arts and Humanities

A version of this article has also been published on The Conversation UK

Dr Lingling Mao references Alexander Cooley’s Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.

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Expert opinion: MH17 tragedy shows the cost of the New Great Game in Central Asia

Published on 29 July 2014
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Arts and Humanities

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