Page 1 of 2 SINOGRAPH Eurasia needs a Sino-German axis
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The shooting down of Malaysian airline flight MH17 and the loss of all 298 people on board have cast a dark shadow on the Ukraine conflict raging for months between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces.
The tragedy has made the international position of Russian President Vladimir Putin more difficult. He can't just back down now after months of support for the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine and nationalistic propaganda at home.
It has also strengthened the need for Germany and China to better
coordinate their Russian policy. Both countries are wary of an aggressive Russia, but even warier of isolating or fragmenting the country.
Sino-German coordination on Russia, whether already a reality or still only a theory, could be more far more important than Putin's Ukrainian torments. In fact, in Ukraine there is much more afoot than a simple internal conflict. There is the reawakening, with vengeance, of Eurasian politics, which had been almost forgotten for decades.
This is something that is pushing the United States to deeply reconsider its strategy in this continent and to consider Eurasia as a whole and not as an odd combination of smaller "independent" regions.
After all, America won the Cold War because it foresaw the unity of Eurasia some 40 years ago.
Without thinking of Mackinder, the inventor of modern geopolitics, or even recalling the more modern Zbigniew Brzezinski with his "Great Chessboard", it is clear that the geographic continuum of the Eurasian continent is the strategic heart of the world - the scale that ultimately will weigh the power of politics.
American president Richard Nixon understood this when in 1971 he changed the course of the Cold War and turned the US defeat in Vietnam into a festering sore for the Soviet Union. Eurasia must be considered as whole, it can't be broken up artificially, who does it is bound to lose the continent and the world.
At the end of the 1970s, president Jimmy Carter continued Nixon's work by pitting China against the Soviet Union on many levels: He first pushed China into a short border war against Vietnam, then firmly Soviet; using the Chinese territory for arming and fomenting the war of Afghan mujahideen. He then triggered Chinese technological modernization and trade as a kind of economic base for a semi-American ally in Asia that was to be always against Moscow.
These elements transformed the geopolitics of Asia, which until the early 1970s seemed destined to be dominated by a growing red tide, with both ideological and geopolitical implications. Nixon's intuition on the role of Eurasia changed the course of the Cold War and won it.
This picture changed between 1989 and 1992. During those few years, America reaped unprecedented political results that transformed the whole situation. The Soviet empire was dismantled; Eastern Europe (including the Baltic States, a former part of the Soviet Union) came in a few weeks to completely embrace NATO; and other parts of the empire such as the Central Asian republics, Mongolia, and Ukraine became neutral territories and buffer states to limit a heavily reduced but still very large Russia.
The collapse of the USSR left the Middle East only in the hands of the United States, which acted to break the ambitions of a former ally, Iraq, and emphasized a role, however limited, of an antagonist of the US - Iran - which, although officially a sworn enemy, times and again was drawn to some sort of collaboration with America about restive Iraq. This was the first Gulf War, which left an unstable situation.
The problem was that after this generalized victory on every front of the Cold War, America had to move quickly to consolidate its advances in key areas such as Eastern Europe.
The US then neglected the Middle East, where the weakened Iraqi Saddam Hussein survived. Meanwhile it also forgot about Afghanistan, where the anti-communist mujahideen turned into anti-capitalists.
This changed Central Asia into a black hole of terrorism. In fact, it is easy with hindsight to accuse America in the 1990s of neglecting Central Asia, and perhaps it is also right, but one has to think instead about the world America faced at the time and what it started.
The US had to consider the immense ruins of the Soviet empire and kick-started the process of globalization, which led to unprecedented economic growth in the history of the planet.
That led directly to the rise of what became the main protagonist of globalization, China. Under president Bill Clinton, the United States in the 1990s had an ambiguous and imprecise foreign policy on China. After the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, many common Chinese had come to think of Americans as the true defenders of their interests, against a Chinese government keen on cracking down on its people.
However, the Clinton administration forfeited the past ideological commitment and it caused the collapse of the ideal bond with common Chinese people by raising the national issue of intellectual property rights.
With a strong stand on the issue of infringement of intellectual property rights, America hit out at small and medium-sized Chinese companies, often founded by individuals who admired Americans.
This transformed the sentiment of the common people in China and started to create an objective distance between America and China not due to ideology or ideals but because Chinese "pirating" companies were defended by their own government and attacked by a foreign government with which they sympathized.
The game was no longer geopolitical with China, because the ideological bias (against communist China), which had been neglected for 20 years (from Nixon to Tiananmen), returned with vengeance at a time, in 1990s when the situation of human rights - though still bad - was improving compared to the previous decades. Meanwhile, China had been admitted to the organizations of world trade - the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and then the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The overall message coming from America left Beijing and the Chinese generally perplexed. The whole trade issue spat (intellectual property rights and WTO) made Chinese feel that trade and economic interests (national interests) were paramount over ideal convergence.
America opposed the national interests of others, even when they expressed similar ideological perspectives. This surprise might look naive watching from the Atlantic, but one has to consider that the modern Western world was (and still largely is) totally different from the Chinese political tradition.
And yet in again another turn although the US had raised serious ideological objections to China unlike with the Soviet Union it also said China must continue to do business with America because international business and economic growth would solve everything. This turned up to be only partly true.
Washington actually had a complex reasons for taking such an ambiguous attitude with China. The latter was deemed to be a huge strategic threat especially at a time when, in 1990s Europe was moving towards economic and political integration, creating a trading block and a currency (the euro) that could challenge North America and the dollar.
Moreover, perhaps the emergence and success of globalization first and then the arrival of the challenge of Islamic terrorism made America forget the territorial contiguity of Eurasia. Just a few months before September 11, 2001 attacks on April 1 there was the EP-3 episode, when a US surveillance plane forcibly landed on the island of Hainan in China.
Previously, there was the stop America put to South Korea's "sunshine policy" towards North Korea, a diplomacy advocated by Beijing, and before that there was the American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
At the turn of the millennium, when the EU was launching its currency - which for the first time in decades could challenge the supremacy of the dollar - there had been a crescendo of tension around China.
Yet despite these growing tensions with America, China did not turn to embrace Russia. The two countries, while sharing the longest border in the world, and a certain commonality of views on North Korea and the then Yugoslavia, were separated beyond words.
In 1994, then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, had indeed signed an important trade agreement for the sale of energy to China, but this agreement (subsequently re-signed several times over the years) was never carried out. Moscow's fear of an advance of Chinese economic interests in Russian Siberia was huge.
An immense, semi-inhabited territory that Russia ripped from Turkish-Mongolian populations in the course of about three centuries and a series of wars against the Manchus, who then fell to China, semi-deserted Siberia gives the Russians a sense of insecurity on the actual possession of this space, because too much space and too few people live there, against the far more numerous Chinese, who live in much lesser space.
Yet it is precisely the conquest of this space, a process started by the father of present-day Russia, Tsar Peter the Great, that has so far given Russians a sense of the great mother Russia.
Without Siberia, Russia is somehow no longer Russia. And the exploitation of Siberia in favor of China opens the door to the commercial penetration and an increased Chinese population in Siberia. In that case, Russia would seem in danger of losing control of Siberia.
In the face of this threat, the various threats, costs, and humiliations imposed by Washington to Russia also lowered the risk of an embrace between Moscow and Beijing on energy in Siberia. This effectively froze the exploitation of Siberia, and nearly 20 years of conflict and deep instability in the Middle East have kept oil prices high and therefore the extraction of Russian oil (at about US$80 a barrel much more expensive than the Middle East) competitive.
To try to mute the China threat in Siberia, Moscow has attempted to involve Japan in the exploitation of gas in that area. But as Russian fears of invasion outweighed the economic calculations, in the case of Japan old chagrin about Russian history prevailed over the future of economic advantages (importation and exploitation of rich deposits).
Tokyo demanded (and allegedly even now demands) the return of the Kurile Islands without the Russian population that lives there. This is because Tokyo feels it was defeated by America but not Russia, which attacked Japan only in the last days of the war.
This is for Tokyo the pre-requisite of deep economic talks with Moscow on Siberia or anything. So for 20 years, Siberia remained there, without the exploitation of resources or a Chinese invasion.
In a way the US was right: new trade issues (intellectual property rights, WTO tiffs), and old and new local geopolitical issues (the Middle East simmering and open tensions; the border issues around China and its neighbors; the hard diffidence between Russia and its Asian neighbors, China and Japan) had covered the importance of considering Eurasia as a whole. Yet the pulls of Eurasia had not disappeared.
In fact, all this was altered dramatically with the anti-Russian uprising and now low intensity war in Ukraine and with the US discovery of shale gas. The arrival on the market of US shale gas potentially makes America independent of imports from the Middle East, gives the US the opportunity to become a net exporter, and in this way allows American shale gas to set the price of oil worldwide. Greater or lesser production by the US, which may decide to sell its gas at a loss, could derail Russia, dependent on the international high price of oil.
The American support for the "anti-Russian" factions in Ukraine further advances the goal of having anti-Russian countries along Russia's border, which pushed Moscow to a second armed intervention outside its borders in recent years, with the occupation and separation of Crimea from Ukraine. The first was the short but effective war against Georgia in 2008. Even after the war in Georgia, Russia and China were not thawing relations.
Yet, after Russia carved out a piece of Ukraine, for the first time the US floated the idea of sanctions against Russian oil and selling American shale gas to Europe. In other words, the view from Russia is that the US is not only trying to conquer the buffer state of Ukraine, and approaching Moscow by nearly a thousand miles (the depth of Ukraine territory), but Ukraine also gives control of the flow of Russian gas to Europe, as most of it flows through Ukraine.
Therefore the Russian gas flow can be broken or stolen with impunity (as it was apparently done by Ukraine) because if Moscow rebels nobody buys any Russian gas, because anyway the US has so much gas that the Washington can sell it to Europe, and this could also help American unsteady economic recovery.
In other words, with this combination of elements, the situation in Ukraine in 2014 was also radically different from the one of Georgia in 2008. In Georgia, America was trying to tighten the Russian southern flank, and the American operation "Allied to Georgia" was also linked to energy, since the Nabucco pipeline would pass through the Caucasus, and America wants the Nabucco since it would bring gas from Central Asia to Europe in competition with the Russian pipeline and bypassing Russia.
The Georgia-Nabucco operation, however, was not an alternative to Russian gas and did not put it out of business; it introduced only competition in the market - proving annoying but not fatal. In the case of Ukraine, that country has a hand in almost all of the distribution of Russian gas.
The first reaction to the Ukraine "provocation" of Russian President Vladimir Putin was almost visceral, to use force: let's intimidate Europeans and Americans. But this reaction has made things worse because the Europeans, who were lukewarm on Ukraine, have sided more with Washington. In addition, without even thinking about sanctions on Ukraine, foreign investment stopped flowing to Russia and Russian money began to flee from Moscow, triggering a dangerous weakening of the already fragile Russian economy. At that point, what remained to be done to Russia, with its back to the wall?
The series of actions proved to Moscow that in America some really want to dismember Russia, as was the case with the Soviet empire, dismantled piece by piece, starting with Eastern Europe. At that point, Putin may have no choice and might as well sell Siberia to the Chinese now, while it still owns it. Then even if Chinese had torn Siberia from Russia they would do it in exchange of a lot of money and not in exchange of the insults and humiliations inflicted by the Americans almost salivating at the prospects of Russian further fragmentation.
In addition, if the Russia-China deal will be done wisely, maybe Siberia will not be Sinicized, and maybe the Russians will be able to find new paths to hold on to Siberia. Besides, Chinese after all, for many reasons, may be not too keen on "conquering" Siberia.