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Why the Chinese Navy is in the Mediterranean

Chinese frigate Weifang leaves the Black Sea on May 14, 2015. Photo by Yörük Işık

Chinese frigate Weifang leaves the Black Sea on May 14, 2015. Photo by Yörük Işık

On Thursday, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigates Linyi and Weifang left the Black Sea along with a Russian Navy guided missile corvette to begin the first ever round of Chinese and Russian naval exercises in the Mediterranean.

The exercise — Joint Sea 2015 — is mostly a sign of a growing security relationship between Moscow and Beijing, and an attempt to signal the two powers’ ascendance on the global stage.

Besides, it also follows after nearly two years of increased Russian naval activity not only in the Mediterranean, but also the Baltic Sea, the High North, and the Black Sea. However, China also has its own reasons for operating in the Mediterranean, and the current exercise is far from the first time the Chinese military has operated there.

For China, the broader Mediterranean region is of real interest in terms of both energy security and trade.

The Mediterranean constitutes the western end of the “New Silk Road,” the Chinese project to link China with markets and producers across Central Asia and into Europe and the Middle East. In order to provide the Silk Road with a western maritime outlet, Chinese companies have poured considerable resources into modernizing and expanding Mediterranean ports, including the Port of Piraeus outside of Athens, Greece. The broader Mediterranean region, and extending down to the Gulf, is also an important source for China’s supply of energy, which is absolutely crucial to fuelling China’s industries and modernization. China’s energy interests in the region may expand further, as the eastern Mediterranean emerges as a new source of oil and gas. It is far from unusual that commercial and energy interests are usually followed by a military presence, at least on a rotating basis.

And the crumbling order in the Middle East and North Africa also has implications for China.

Beijing abstained from the U.N. vote to authorize military action against the Gadhafi regime in Libya, and is now dismayed by the continuing instability in that country and the broader region. Furthermore, the PLAN conducted a major noncombatant evacuation, albeit with the substantial help of leased commercial ships, of Chinese nationals working in Libya shortly before the coalition and NATO airstrikes began against Libyan targets.

Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin greet participants of Joint Sea-2014 exercise at Wusong naval port in Shanghai, east China, May 20, 2014. Xinhua Photo

Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin greet participants of Joint Sea-2014 exercise at Wusong naval port in Shanghai, east China, May 20, 2014. Xinhua Photo

In March, China returned to the broader region to conduct yet another evacuation of Chinese citizens, this time from an increasingly unstable Yemen.

Those two cases highlight the fact that Africa and the Middle East play host to a growing number of Chinese companies and workers, who are in the region working and investing in substantial infrastructure projects and production facilities.

China is also aware that the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa may well have a direct effect on China’s internal stability. China has a Muslim minority of its own, and Beijing is increasingly worried that the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa may one day inspire similar uprisings in China’s interior. A Chinese military presence in the Mediterranean, then, provides an opportunity to monitor the developing situation up close and continuously.

China has also sought to buttress its military-to-military relationships in the Mediterranean region. Chinese warships detailed to the counter-piracy effort off the Horn of Africa have on numerous occasions ventured into the Mediterranean for port visits in both European and North African countries.

Chinese frigate 547 Linyi passing through Bosphorus on May 14, 2015.

Chinese frigate 547 Linyi leaving the Black Sea on May 14, 2015. Photo by Yörük Işık

The Chinese and Turkish air forces also exercised together in 2010 in central Turkey, which is the first time Chinese units had exercised together with a NATO country. More recently, Turkey decided to acquire a new air defense system from China, causing concerns in both Washington and in allied capitals in Europe about the interoperability with NATO and U.S. air and missile defense networks. Israel has also had a defense industrial relationship with China for many years, including the export of UAVs from Israel to China, which has at times irritated Washington.

Given the strategic interests, and the long-term commercial, political, and military relationships Beijing is seeking to build in the Mediterranean region, it is more than likely that this will not be the last Chinese naval exercise there.

And this has implications for both the United States and its European NATO allies.

The Mediterranean is no longer NATO’s mare nostrum, and this is a reflection of the broader global shift of power away from the West and toward Asia.

In the future, the Mediterranean will be a more congested and competitive space, and will include new maritime actors that hail from ports far from the region.

  • 柯凱為

    Taiwan need United States to stop China
    just sold us weapon Plaese!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Sans Phobia

      When Obama gone–then America change!!! What weapons needed???

      • Secundius

        @ Sans Phobia.

        Not the way you think it is…

        • Sans Phobia

          A surface (land) to ship missile system may be deployed on USA Homeland to counter Red China’s Naval excursions. I am pretty old, this is the 9th President (since becoming aware of things) of our country that I have lived under. Of course what I say is from My Life experience and point of view, it is often completely normal for me to put fingers to keyboard before engaging brain.

          • Secundius

            @ Sans Phobia.

            If you can Canister Launch a Harpoon, Standand Missile, Sea Sparrow, Tomahawk on Sea. You can do it on Land as well. Perfect example, the Patriot is a Land Launched Standard Missile SM-3…

          • Sans Phobia

            Excellent synopsis, consider also an extended range TSSAM variant with amour penetrating high explosive munition, to sink the vessel. Your examples would work well with a bridge impact, either way the Chinese frigate would suffer disablement without exposing US warships.

          • Secundius

            @ Sans Phobia.

            But as I remember, Taiwan already has several systems in place. Like the Tien Kung I & II, the Ching Feng, the Hsiung Feng III and the Tien Chi…

          • Sans Phobia

            My reply was how the USA could destroy Red China’s surface ships. Defending the small island of Taiwan from 2300+ Ballistic Missiles is quite complex – Hsiung Feng III vs Russian made SS-N-22 Sunburn is a start…

          • Secundius

            @ Sans Phobia.

            Even Sunburn has to fly a Low-High-Low Trajectory, a sustained ~Mach 2.8 Flight a Just-Above Sea-Level would Cause so much thermal heat that Sunburn would “vaporize” before ever reaching it’s target…

          • Sans Phobia

            Great News for Taiwan Military and her people! – China’s Land Reclamation is taking place as we breathe – What to Do???

    • Be Way

      Death will come easy for at least half of the population in Taiwan. Don’t say you have not been warned.

      • Secundius

        @ Be Way.

        And how will Death Find you Sir. On your Bed, or Under It…

      • Sans Phobia

        A real CIC would Honor our agreements to defend Taiwan, NOT say that was signed before I was born. Taiwan like Japan both have good reason for serious concern today…

  • Intellectualist

    China has superpower ambitions that need to be coupled with superpower responsibilities. It isn’t about intimidation anymore. The real projection of power in this century will be how many partners you can mobilize to ensure the trust and legitimacy of your activities in a region. Securing an area with a dozen partners instead of a dozen fearful neighbor makes the difference between being perceived as aggressive or not.

  • Secundius

    I would think the ChiCom PLAN Naval Base in Haifa Harbor, Israel might have something to do with it, too…

    • Jesus Saves

      What PLAN naval base? R u calling port visits naval bases? Then I guess Zhanjiang is an American naval base & Hawaii is also a Chicom base.

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