China is holding a naval exercise in the Mediterranean for the first time. The operation is being held in conjunction with Russia and is appropriately named Joint Sea 2015.
Although the exercise is framed as a way for China and Russia to increase bilateral military cooperation — the two countries had previously conducted a naval exercise in the Pacific together in 2012 — China’s presence in the Mediterranean could mark the beginning of more assertive Chinese policy outside of Asia.
Magnus Nordenman of USNI News argues that the Mediterranean, and especially the eastern portion of the sea, “is of real interest in terms of both energy security and trade” to China.
“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,” Nordenman notes. “In order to provide the Silk Road with a western maritime outlet, Chinese companies have poured considerable resources into modernising and expanding Mediterranean ports, including the Port of Piraeus outside of Athens, Greece.”
A foothold in the eastern Mediterranean also allows China to extend its influence throughout the Middle East, including through maritime oil chokepoints in the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz.
This, in turn, helps to ensure continued energy security, itself necessary to continuing the economic growth that underlies the stability of China’s Communist Party regime.
According to the Department of Defence’s 2015 report on the Chinese military, Beijing imported approximately 60% of its oil as well as around 32% of its natural gas in 2014. Of these imports, approximately 43% of the oil passed through the Strait of Hormuz.
The Strait of Hormuz is vital to global maritime traffic and susceptible to potential conflict. In the midst of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, Iran essentially closed off the Strait against any maritime traffic it considered suspicious, which lead to a brief US military engagement with Tehran in Persian Gulf. The Iranian navy harassed two foreign-flagged vessels in the Strait in April, including a US-flagged ship.
Additionally, 3% of China’s maritime oil imports and 4% of its natural gas imports passed through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. A Mediterranean presence would further China’s ability to secure these passages against political instability.
Beyond trade routes, the eastern Mediterranean could soon emerge as a major producer of natural gas. Israel has found three gas fields off its coast that are estimated to contain upwards of 36.2 trillion cubit feet of natural gas.
Natural gas fields have also been discovered off the shore of Cyprus. The total size of the Cypriot and Israeli fields are estimated to be close to half the size of known reserves in Saudi Arabia.
By gradually increasing its presence throughout the region, China could position itself to take advantage of the excavation of new gas fields. Joint Sea 2015 is likely to only be the beginning of China’s attempts to develop operational capabilities in the region.