The MH17 disaster: a challenge to China?

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, July 23, 2014
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Photo taken on July 18, 2014 shows the debris at the crash site of MH17 of Malaysian Airlines near the city of Shakhtarsk in Ukraine's Donetsk region. Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said Friday that according to the International Civil Aviation Organization's Annex 13, the Ukrainian government should institute an investigation into the circumstances of the deadly MH17 incident, and be responsible for the conduct of the investigation. [Xinhua]

The world is still shaken by the destruction of the Malaysian airliner MH17 on July 17, the second major air disaster of 2014 involving the same airline, although that is a tragic coincidence. It has not yet been possible to establish exactly what happened, or how, or why, but it is clear that this event has very serious implications for global security and the conduct of international affairs.

For this reason, although this time China has no direct connection to the event, it will still require a Chinese response, in its capacity as one of the principal guardians of global security. China has been very restrained in commenting on the struggle in progress in Eastern Ukraine, no doubt reluctant to cause more trouble, but now that the situation in that country has brought about a disaster of such proportions, China will not be able to refrain indefinitely from adopting a position. China has frequently found itself broadly aligned with Russia in resisting precipitate Western intervention in various parts of the world, which has sometimes proved a wise stance. But recent Russian behavior towards neighboring states is surely a challenge to norms of international behavior which China has consistently endorsed, and which after MH17 can no longer be ignored.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia had a considerable degree of instability to deal with on its southern borders, leading to a long and bloody war to pacify Chechnya. But, more recently, securing the Russian border has come at the expense of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighbouring states. There are areas of Moldovan, Georgian and now Ukrainian territory which are under overwhelming Russian influence. This might be considered pardonable if it meant these regions becoming more stable; but it is far from clear that that is the case or even the intention. The result of Russian activity in these regions, including Chechnya, is that they are under the de facto control of non-state actors who enjoy Russian support, but whose activities can easily be disowned by the Russian state if they prove embarrassing.

There has been some Western criticism of China's policies in its border areas; but it cannot be denied that China's aim is to keep the border areas stable and peaceful. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case with Russia.

We still await certainty on the full background to the MH17 atrocity; at the moment it is not even certain that the shadowy figures who control the area where the plane fell will allow the event to be properly investigated. But the balance of probabilities would suggest that all countries will need to prepare a response if and when it is established that the aircraft was shot down by pro-Russian rebels aiming to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty, using weaponry supplied by elements linked to the Russian state. If anything demonstrates the wisdom of China's consistent emphasis on the importance of clarity on the issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity, this does.

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