China may welcome the west’s discomfort over the de facto war in Ukraine, but it should also be a reminder that China’s vulnerability is, as it almost always has been, mainly on its own northern and western frontiers. Nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers and missiles provide a balance against other powers, but as the Russians have found they are no protection at all against ethnic and demographic forces.
There is for sure the knee-jerk Chinese reaction that somehow Ukraine’s problems were originally cooked up by the United States in particular as a crude attempt to draw the beleaguered country into the western orbit rather than allowing it to be a buffer state between Russia and the west. The Russians have responded by sponsoring rebellion in the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine.
Beijing likes to see in this a parallel with the supposed US attempt to “surround” China with informal alliances with Southeast Asian states and India as well as Japan – conveniently forgetting that China’s designs on the South China Sea and Indian border regions have provided the stimulus for these countries to seek closer ties with Washington.
China would probably now be delighted if the US, true to its recent determination to involve itself in all and sundry armed conflicts, were to agree to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. President Obama may be averse to such actions but the pressure is on from the massed ranks of conservative US politicians sitting safely at home and largely ignorant of distant and complex issues, to think that they can conduct yet another war by proxy.
As Germany’s Angela Merkel recognizes more clearly than anyone, the Russian response would almost certainly be to step up its own involvement. Putin needs a patriotic issue to keep himself on his crumbling throne and what better than a fight to reclaim land which was part of the historic “Rus” homeland of the original Russian state. The west can bleat about borders being sacrosanct but Ukraine’s Soviet-era borders were designed to create ethnic confusion.
For some in China, deeper US involvement in the Ukraine conflict would provide a handy new diversion away from its declared revived interest in Asia. Ever since that was proclaimed as the US set dates for withdrawal from its Iraq and Afghanistan wars, new issues have arisen to engage Washington’s attention and the demands of its armchair warriors for intervention – in Libya, in Yemen, in Syria and now against the so-called Islamic State in the Levant.
Deepening of the Ukraine conflict would also increase China’s leverage over Russia on the oil and gas deals that Moscow needs ever more urgently to offset low prices and its dependence on sales to the west.
Meanwhile Russia itself may be able to stir up just enough Greek sense of solidarity as fellow adherents of the Orthodox Christian church to find a western ally should a bankrupt Greece be expelled from the Eurozone and look to Russia (and China) to sustain it, a country which has far more strategic than economic importance.
Yet both Russia and China must be careful about what they wish for. As the Americans discovered with their fostering of militant Islam in Afghanistan, it is easy to unleash forces you do not understand, let alone control. Those forces roam the steppes, deserts and mountains of central Asia.
As Ukraine shows, Russia has taken unkindly to its loss of empire and may yet try to revive old glories not just vis-a-vis its former territories in the west, but in the east as well. Kazkhstan’s ethnic Russian population has fallen since the Soviet break-up but is still 25 percent of the total. Russians predominate in some districts, particularly in the north. The Kazakh regime is oil-rich and skillful but its leader since 1989, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is aging. Meanwhile there is in the region a revival of both Turkic and Muslim identity. So far, the Muslim element has been largely suppressed. But Chechnya is a classic example of how the Russian suppression of a nationalist uprising provided the entrée for militant Islam to take its place.
Kazakhstan may be stable enough for now but what is the future of Uzbekistan, its smaller but more populous neighbor at 30 million, more rural, more traditional? It has so long been under the brutal thumb of the Soviet-era dictator Islam Karimov, now aged 77, that it is almost forgotten. Or there is the future of China’s other immediate neighbor Kyrgyzstan.
Despite – or because of – Beijing’s overtly racist attempts to populate Xinjiang with loyal Han Chinese, violent unrest in the province continues to grow. As in Chechnya, militant Islam has taken over from secular nationalism as the driving force of Uighur revolt against the foreign invader.
For now all the regimes in the region have a common interest in suppressing militant Islam, which threatens their secular authoritarian and in some cases personal regimes. Hence their apparently cozy relations with Russia and China through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is dedicated to central Asian security. But there is an impermanence about the situation that must trouble Beijing. Making matters worse, its alliance with Pakistan, another hotbed of Islamic militants, some with influence in the military and security services, gives India every incentive not to view China’s occupation of Tibet as permanent.
Again, China’s attempts to tie this vast non-Han land to itself through its new Silk Road of migration and railway building has not extinguished Tibetan nationalism. Even the death of the Dalai Lama is unlikely to be more than a temporary setback for a region with a very strong sense of identity.
Russia’s border and ethnic identity problems are equally dangerous. Chechnya will probably explode again, Dagestan and other bits of Russia with non-Russian majorities can be stirred. The Caucasus in general remains a cauldron of mini-conflicts. Nor can Russia take much comfort from the weakening of Turkey’s ties to Europe as a result of some EU members’ opposition to its joining, as well as the somewhat authoritarian and Islamist ways of President Erdogan.
Turkey’s influence in the Turkic region is strong and growing. The Muslim lands that are now part of southern Russia were once part of the Ottoman Empire. As for Greece, the Turks have no sympathy for an old foe which has often been given a free ride by a Europe conscious more of its ancient civilizing role than the modern state whose independence from the Ottoman Empire was achieved thanks to European intervention.