Naval visits accustom Mediterranean to new role

By Jonathan Holslag Source:Global Times Published: 2012-8-1 19:10:00

Illustration: Sun Ying
Illustration: Sun Ying

For a brief moment it looked like the Chinese navy was bound to stage a major provocation, not in the maritime margins of East Asia this time, but in the Mediterranean.

On Sunday, a destroyer and a frigate ostentatiously sailed through the Suez Canal.

As the Russians had dispatched a flotilla to stage exercises off the Syrian coast, the most plausible explanation was that China would join in.

That would have been a slap in the face of the West. Luckily, the two ships steamed onward to the Bosphorus after which they navigated into the Black Sea to visit Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria.

So, there is no reason to worry. The Black Sea was one of the few places not yet covered convincingly by China's naval charm offensive, so at the most, the Chinese flotilla is now just filling that gap.

The fact that it did not seize the opportunity to hold drills together with the Russians could confirm that Beijing is not warming to the prospect of a new Cold War and continues to prefer strategic ambivalence above polarization.

But it also confirms that China considers the Mediterranean an area where it wants its navy to be present.

In 2002 the destroyer Qingdao and a replenishment ship dropped anchor in Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Greece, and Portugal on a yearlong journey around the globe.

In 2010, the fifth task force, which was deployed in the Gulf of Aden for combating piracy, concluded its mission by making port calls in Egypt, Italy, and Greece.

There are many good reasons for Beijing to show its flag west of Suez. It is always useful to showcase to domestic audiences that the navy is ready for long-range tasks. And it signals China's interest as a trading nation in access to sea lanes like the Strait of Hormuz, the Bosporus, and Gibraltar.

It's better to make countries around the Mediterranean used to Chinese naval presence, than to alarm them later on.

It's also useful to court member states of the EU and NATO at times of escalating military tensions with the US. Crisis-ridden countries in East and South Europe have been particularly useful to show that China is not on a collision course with the West.

That presents the EU with both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, it could exploit this interest to extract a more cooperative attitude from China on a range of security issues.

On the other hand, however, China is keen to strengthen ties with member states, not with the EU as a whole. It left for the Mediterranean, task force 11 had exchanges with a Dutch frigate, but it was not interested in the way its hosts coordinated anti-piracy at the level of the EU.

For a long time China sincerely wished that Europe would turn into a united security actor, but they have given up on this.

China is just dipping in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. But China, like the US, Russia, Turkey, and many others, are determined to strengthen their influence all along Europe's maritime periphery.

Instead of behaving like some kind of blithe Club Med for visiting navies from all over the world, the European member states must come up with a set of common strategic priorities and tools for their maritime neighborhood.

The author is a research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies.

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