MH17 tragedy shows the risks of the new Great Game

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Mikhail Metzel/Ria Novosti/EPA/Kremlin Pool

Since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over rebel-held Ukraine, there has been much finger-pointing between Russia, pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government. While the UK and US blame Russia for launching the missile, 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 and Russia have a reciprocal relationship when it comes to supporting each other in times of crisis. For example, just earlier this year when China and Vietnam were in dispute over the South China Sea, Vladimir Putin flew to Shanghai to seal a US$400 billion gas deal, marking deeper ties between the two nations.

It seems that when China and Russia face pressure from the West, and the US especially, they maintain a united front (though history has shown how this can change). But this does not mean that all is rosy between the two countries. When it comes to the neighbouring business of Central Asia, the two are engaged in a 21st-century “Great Game” for influence. And the battle is producing unintentional and unfortunate collateral damage.

Who’s who in the Great Game

According to Alexander Cooley’s book, Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Game Contest in Central Asia, there are key trends to the influence and control that different countries have over Central Asia. The US has its tacit security bargains and a weakening moral authority while Russia thrives off of the backlash against western democratic ideas and human rights promotion. China, meanwhile, has risen as the dominant economic player.

Former Soviet states

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the post-Soviet states of Central Asia started to look for other patrons to help secure their survival. China was among one of the first few countries that entered the scene, primarily out of its own need for the reserves of natural gas and oil there. It established the Shanghai Five in 1996, bringing together Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which became the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) in 2001 with the addition of Uzbekistan.

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

Russia

As the natural successor to the Soviet Union, Russia has been at pains to stop its former republics from moving into camps other than its own. While it is able to share the hegemony with China in the SCO, in the European Partnership Russia has no say and these former republics look set to be forever lost from its grip.

Unwilling to let any of his country’s former satellites slip from his control, Vladimir Putin picked up on the president of Kazakhstan’s idea of a Eurasian Economic Union. He drew up a rationale for economic union across Asia, incorporating lessons from post-War Europe’s integration, and proposed the union as a comparable economic structure to the EU.

The US

Meanwhile, the US see this rationale as a thinly-veiled move to “re-Sovietise” the region. Their interest in Russia’s satellite states also significantly increased in the post–9/11 era – most notably in Afghanistan.

But Ukraine too tragically became a muscle-flexing battlefield between the US and Russia. Significant in size and the breadbasket of 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 it away from the Kremlin, Russia is reluctant to let it go.

China

Commentators widely describe the Eurasian Economic Council as a challenge to Chinese access to the region. From the composition of its members, they are right to a certain degree. The Eurasian Economic Union will have six members by 2015 and the key members are almost identical to the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, only substituting China and Uzbekistan with Belarus and Armenia. If Russia has no plan to get rid of China over rival interests in Central Asia, it could just carry on with the SCO which has been operating since 2001.

China, however, is not insensitive to this plan. In September 2013, China proposed a Silk Road Economic Belt, aiming to bring together Asia and Europe, involving 24 cities across eight countries. And China’s president, Xi Jinping, has called on China and Germany to work together in the region, with significant investments already underway.

Benefits and risks

The competition between China, Russia and the West for influence over these peripheral states is constant. In many ways, the jockeying has been beneficial for former Soviet states – Cooley’s book reveals how they have effectively been able to manipulate and play off the great powers’ interests to strengthen their own positions.

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.