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MH17 May Rewrite Ukraine Crisis

Jul 23 , 2014

The biggest mystery regarding Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 remains to be who is responsible. To date, all available clues appear to point at the pro-Russia forces in east Ukraine, who are bent on separating from the country, as well as Russia, their alleged supporter. The most likely possibility is that Russia-supported separatist forces in east Ukraine shot down MH17 using a Russian-made missile. Russia is thus under tremendous international pressure to act.   

Given its ripple effects, the MH17 tragedy may not only rewrite the crisis in Ukraine, but could also ignite new uncertainties in international relations, including major-power relations.

First, the MH17 incident may become a turning point in the crisis, and may rewrite or even reverse the trends in this Russia-West game.

Russia may suffer consequences for supporting the separatist forces in east Ukraine, losing more than it could win. Prior to the tragedy, pro-West forces in Ukraine launched a “color revolution” with the support of the West, overthrowing the legitimate pro-Russia government, and inviting strong responses from Russia. Russia then gained the upper hand with the annexation of Crimea in its competition with the West. However, with the MH17 tragedy, fingers have been pointed at pro-Russia forces and Russia. With Russia being targeted, Putin faces mounting pressure. Both the Ukrainian government and the West are exploiting this incident to attack Russia, gaining the upper hand with international public opinion and the moral high ground. The crisis in Ukraine may possibly be rewritten. Russia, in the face of Western economic sanctions and mounting pressure from public opinion, may have to reduce its support for the separatist forces in east Ukraine. The “peace talks” between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia forces may see changes in the former’s favor, and the West may see some “headway” in its geopolitical competition with Russia.

The Financial Times in Britain published an editorial titled “Putin is facing his moment of truth,” saying the horrible tragedy that has claimed 298 innocent lives “may” convince the Kremlin to intervene and stop the bloody rebellion in east Ukraine. The New York Times also ran an editorial, saying if it is confirmed that MH17 had been shot down by the rebels, Putin may find himself isolated globally and might have to cut off support for them.

Second, the MH17 tragedy will, at least to some extent, influence major-country relations, and China’s “major-country diplomacy” may face new challenges and opportunities.

On one hand, with the Russia-West relationship further worsening as a result of the crisis in Ukraine, coupled with this latest incident, China’s major-country diplomacy faces new challenges. The close China-Russia cooperation will be put to test, and Sino-West relations, especially the relationships between China and Europe, also need to be taken into consideration. If China and Russia get too close, then there will inevitably be American and European dissatisfaction. So China needs to “micro-adjust” its major-country diplomacy and better balance its relations with Russia and Europe. On the other hand, China’s major-country diplomacy also faces new opportunities. With Putin forcefully challenging western hegemony, the deterioration in Russia-West relations have become the main focus in current major-country relations. With Russia-US and Russia-Europe wrangling continuously escalating, the US will have to put more energy into containing Russia, which may result in the temporary mitigation of strategic pressures on China from the US.

Third, China’s timely and appropriate response to the incident is conducive to its international image. As the two major victims of the MH17 tragedy, both Malaysia and the Netherlands have friendly ties with China. China’s response was appropriate from the perspectives of both preserving these two important bilateral ties and in terms of humanitarianism. During his visit to Argentina, President Xi Jinping immediately spoke on the incident. Besides delivering Chinese condolences, he called for a fair and objective investigation. Xi has also expressed condolences to the top Malaysian leader and the King of the Netherlands. China’s resident representative at the United Nations emphasized at the Security Council that the safety of international civil aviation must be guaranteed, and the current imperative is to uncover the truth. And before the truth is out, neither side should rush to conclusions, make subjective judgments, or make mutual accusations. He also expressed Chinese support for independent, fair and objective probes into the incident, and called on all parties to cooperate in the investigation. At the same time, he reiterated that a political solution is the only way to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, and that China respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including that of Ukraine’s.

Last, the MH17 incident illustrates that the impact of regional conflicts in the era of globalization are increasingly globalized.

Looking back on the first half of 2014, the two most outstanding international concerns had been the crisis in Ukraine and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The two originally unrelated threads unexpectedly converged in the second half of the year, leading to another tragic episode, indicating the complicated interconnectedness of international affairs in today’s world.

Chen Xiangyang is a research fellow and Deputy Director of the Institute of World Politics, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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