PORT SAID, Egypt (Reuters) – Egypt has seen no shortage of empires come and go, from its own ancient civilizations to those of Greece, Rome, Britain and France. Now, it is among the outposts of the latest Mediterranean power: China.
Situated at the northern end of the Suez Canal, the Port Said Container Terminal is one of the busiest in the region, vital for shipments not only to Egypt but also much of Europe and the Middle East.
Like several other key ports in the region – including Piraeus in Greece and Naples in Italy – it is now partially owned by China. The state-owned Cosco Pacific holds 20 percent the terminal, helping make it one of the dominant – if not the dominant – Mediterranean port operators.
By Peter Apps, Political Risk Correspondent | Reuters
Cosco stresses that it is a purely commercial venture and many analysts agree. But few doubt that Beijing has made a wider geopolitical decision to become much more involved in the region.
For the last two years, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has sent one or more warships through the Suez Canal to visit southern European ports, the furthest its fleet has ever operated from home.
But China is not the only great power now increasing its involvement in the area. With Russia sending warships to positions off Syria and the United States signaling it too intends to take the region more seriously, the Mediterranean is clearly no longer seen as the strategic backwater many believed it had become.
“The assumption that the Mediterranean would become a purely Western sphere of influence appears to have been premature,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the United States Naval War College in Rhode Island.
“The Chinese are showing their flag in an area far from their traditional area of operations in part to show that they are a global power. The renewed Russian deployments are part intended as a sign that Moscow has not gone away.”
Other strategic shifts are also taking place in the region.
The “Arab Spring” has unleashed a period of unrest and instability across North Africa and beyond while the euro zone crisis has left troubled southern European states struggling with debt and searching for ready investment.
Meanwhile, the gas platforms beginning to dot the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean have unleashed a scramble for resources that has further exacerbated pre-existing tensions between Cyprus, Turkey and Israel.
The U.S. had hoped it could pull back from the area, helping transfer military resources to the Pacific and South China Sea as part of a pivot to Asia aimed heavily at containing a rising China. But last year’s Libya conflict provided stark warning that European states had distinctly limited capacity, and as the financial crisis bites defense budgets have been further cut.
“I don’t see a conflict,” says Gvosdev at the Naval War College. “But… (it) does make it more difficult to do an Asia pivot on the cheap.”
U.S. DESTROYERS TO SPAIN
In 2011 Admiral Gary Roughead – at the time Chief of Naval Operations and the professional head of the U.S. Navy – told senior officers the U.S. needed to return to the Mediterranean.
In the years since the end of the Cold War and Balkan conflicts that followed, the U.S. had quietly stopped maintaining a permanent aircraft carrier there as it focused on Iraq and Afghanistan and confrontation with Iran.
Limited resources mean putting a permanent carrier back in the region is all but impossible. But other ships now look set to take up a much more permanent presence.
Last year, the Pentagon announced it was deploying four state-of-the-art missile destroyers to the Spanish port of Rota, in part to counter any missile threat to Europe from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East.
In November, as Israeli forces pounded Gaza in their brief air campaign against Hamas, several U.S. assault ships and escorts entered the eastern Mediterranean in what was seen as a precursor to any evacuation of U.S. citizens. It was the sort of deployment military officials say will likely become more common in the years to come.
Nor, current and former officials say, does Washington have any intention of letting gas tensions between its various Eastern Mediterranean allies turn into open conflict.
“The Maghreb and Levant are clearly going to be unstable for some time,” Roughead, now retired and a senior visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, told Reuters. “The eastern Mediterranean is also worrying. There’s no doubt it’s going to require more attention.”
SYRIA WORRIES DRIVE RUSSIAN PRESENCE
It was the positioning of a U.S. carrier off Syria in November 2011 that appeared to prompt one of the largest Russian naval moves in recent years. As Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on rebels and protesters became ever bloodier, Washington had quietly moved it and its battle group towards Syria.
In what may or may not have been a direct response, Moscow sent its only aircraft carrier – the Soviet era Admiral Kuznetzov - into the same area to visit its naval base at Tartus. In Moscow, Russian officials gave distinctly conflicting signals to local and international media, some denying any link to the Syrian conflict while others saying it was a deliberate warning to the West to back off.
On January 17, Russian news agencies again reported two warships were heading to Syria for exercises and to deliver munitions to Tartus, although it was not immediately clear whether that meant the undisclosed weaponry was headed for Assad’s forces or Russia’s own stockpiles there.
The Russian naval base at Tartus remains Moscow’s only Mediterranean port. Retaining access to it is seen as a major factor in Russia’s refusal to abandon Assad.
When a Chinese destroyer and frigate sailed through Suez into the Mediterranean in August last year, several analysts suggested they were aiming to join joint naval exercises being held between Moscow and Damascus.
But instead, they sailed up through the Bosporus to the Black Sea to visit Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania.
CHINA’S “STRATEGIC AMBIVALENCE”
“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 about polarization,” Jonathan Holsag, research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, wrote in Chinese state-owned newspaper the Global Times in August.
Some European and U.S. security analysts remain nervous over the Chinese expansion – particularly in Naples, where the Chinese-owned terminal directly overlooks NATO’s main Mediterranean naval base. But in Greece, the Chinese investment remains relatively popular. With the purchase of new cranes and other equipment, Cosco has increased container traffic through its terminal by some 70 percent each of the three years of operation.
The vast majority of containers handled by the port are shipped on elsewhere in the world, turning Piraeus into a much more significant international hub.
“This investment has been very important for Greece,” says Tassos Vamvakidis, deputy manager of the Cosco-run container terminal. “At a time of economic difficulty, it is very important.”
One veteran British naval officer compared China’s approaching the Mediterranean to that of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, when its commercial expansion was at least as important as its military.
Chinese officials might object to that comparison. But there seems little doubt they intend to stay – and that includes a high profile if occasional military presence.
“There are many good reasons for Beijing to show its flag,” wrote Hoslag in “Global Times”, a nationalist tabloid published by the Communist Party mouthpiece the “People’s Daily. “It is better to make countries around the Mediterranean used to Chinese naval presence than to alarm them later on.”
(Reporting by Peter Apps)
By J. Michael Cole
For the first time since China’s re-emergence as a power to be reckoned with, Western powers are being confronted with scenarios involving the risk of clashes with Chinese military forces outside the Asian giant’s backyard.
Key to China’s expansion is a shift in recent years from Mao Zedong’s Army-centric military to one where other branches of the armed service — the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Second Artillery Corps — are given greater freedom of action.
One branch in particular, the PLAN, has developed alongside Beijing’s ambitions as a global power, allowing it not only to show the flag, such as in multilateral anti-piracy missions off the Gulf of Aden, but also to back up its evolving strategic imperatives.
This became especially clear during the weekend when reportedly a PLAN escort fleet, which included the Type 052 “Qingdao” (hull 113) destroyer, Type 054A “Yantai” (hull 538) missile frigate, and the “Weishanhu” (hull 887) auxiliary oil replenishment ship, crossed the Suez Canal, with Cairo’s permission, on their way to the Mediterranean Sea (only Egyptian media reported on the destroyer). Although Egyptian media initially said on Sunday that the vessels could hold military exercises in the Mediterranean, Egyptian as well as other Middle Eastern media outlets reported on Monday that the ships had continued on through the Dardanelles on their way to Ukraine.
Such ‘showing of the flag’ at this time is a precedent with serious implications for international security, as Beijing, an ally of Syria, has joined Russia in vetoing three United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that aimed to increase pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime to end his bloody crackdown on civilians there.
Middle East media reports circulated in June said that PLAN vessels were planning to take part in naval exercises off the coast of Syria alongside the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian navies (Russia and Syria later denied joint exercises were being planned). Moscow, like Beijing, opposes foreign meddling in Syria, and in the middle of July dispatched a flotilla of 11 warships to the Mediterranean, with more following later that month. Russia maintains that its warships are not engaging in Syria tasks, and says the vessels are preparing for the Kaskad-2012 drills scheduled for this September. For its part, Tehran, another Beijing ally, is apprehensive about the possibility of regime change in Syria, in part because Syria under al-Assad has served as a key conduit for Iran’s support to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Although it looks like joint exercises will not take place this time around, in all likelihood some will eventually be held as the presence of Chinese ships becomes more common. And one thing is certain: the transit of PLAN and Russian vessels in the area is not coincidental — it is clearly meant as a deterrent against intervention by Western powers in the Syrian crisis.
For evident reasons, activity by Chinese warships in the region comports risks, especially at a time of high tensions involving between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea. The more friction points there are, the more likely it is that, at some point, accidental or intentional clashes will occur. And given Beijing’s growing sense of victimhood, it is not impossible that an incident involving a PLAN ship in the Mediterranean could add institutional pressures for retaliation elsewhere. This would be especially likely if decision-makers in Beijing, who have a tendency to regard China as the “victim,” interpreted that incident as a plot against it, thus making it possible for Beijing to claim it is retaliating for purely defensive reasons.
While claims that we are seeing the emergence of an “authoritarian axis” may be premature, we are nevertheless witnessing the rise of a new power — one with global seafaring reach — whose strategic considerations, or the values of their political leaders, are often times diametrically opposed to those of the West. If it concludes that its interests abroad are being threatened by Western ideals, such as the responsibility to protect civilians in failing or failed states, China may choose the military option to undermine Western efforts. This would be especially true if al-Assad’s possible ouster were seen as the opening shot in a new round of anti-authoritarian “springs,” a development that has greatly unsettled Beijing and that appears to have resulted in its decision to impose stricter limits on freedoms at home.
In the fog of war that would certainly enshroud a military intervention in, say, the Syrian civil war, the risks of accidents or miscommunication would be dangerously high, especially in light of institutional biases that tend to militate against restraint. For example, while not directly taking part in hostilities, PLAN or Russian ships could attempt to create a line at sea to prevent Western ships from approaching Syria to launch military operations against it, or to prevent an embargo. How any of the actors would react in such a scenario is an open question. All it potentially would take is one collision to spark a chain reaction, the echo of which might reverberate back in the Asia-Pacific.
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