A new kid on the block? China in the security conundrum of the eastern Mediterranean

China in the security conundrum of the eastern Mediterranean. Chinese Development Notice at Lake Assal (Djibouti). Photo: Michael Edward Walsh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Chinese Development Notice at Lake Assal (Djibouti). Photo: Michael Edward Walsh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
China in the security conundrum of the eastern Mediterranean. Chinese Development Notice at Lake Assal (Djibouti). Photo: Michael Edward Walsh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Chinese Development Notice at Lake Assal (Djibouti). Photo: Michael Edward Walsh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The eastern Mediterranean, a strategically important region both in terms of connectivity and geopolitics, is plagued by inherent political instability and a long history of intractable conflicts, either ongoing or frozen ones –Palestine, Cyprus, Syria and Libya readily spring to mind. And there has been quite a bit of tension building up lately between Turkey and Greece. Yet another permanent feature of the eastern Mediterranean is the fact that, despite its explosive potential, there is no regional institutional framework that could contribute to conflict mitigation. How does Beijing fit into this complex setting?

China is a newcomer to the eastern Mediterranean, traditionally dominated by the UK and France during the first half of the 20th century and later on by the US, but its economic footprint has steadily been growing across the region. Big Chinese companies are involved in the construction or management of seaports, railway tracks and industrial parks, power plants and electricity grids, logistics, property development, etc. In the case of Israel, Beijing has been seeking access to high-tech as well, much to the alarm of the US. It is only shaky Lebanon, tiny Cyprus and conflict-torn Syria and Libya that do not host any substantive Chinese investment projects at present. However, Beijing has been claiming a role in the reconstruction of Syria ever since 2017. In Libya, the Chinese state-run oil company PetroChina has signed a contract with the National Oil Corporation (NOC). In north Lebanon, a Chinese conglomerate has offered to expand the Tripoli port, but due to the protracted government crisis in the country there has been no decision yet.

China in the security conundrum of the region

While China has been eyeing the Mediterranean as a springboard to European and north African markets, it has been careful not to step on key actors’ toes, particularly in view of the complicated security landscape of the region. Notably, China did not take part in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and is the only global power that stayed out of the fray. Beijing’s low profile in all the conflicts in the region illustrates its priorities, which remain primarily economic at this stage. Thus, hiding behind Moscow, China has vetoed more than a dozen UN resolutions on Syria, but kept its embassy in Damascus throughout the conflict and is eager to take part in reconstruction efforts. During the 2011 Libyan civil war, Beijing initially supported Gaddafi’s forces, which could be explained by the $20 billion worth of its outstanding contracts with the late dictator.

In Palestine, President Xi’s four-point proposal put forward in May 2013 envisages a ‘two-state solution’, but to what extent this constitutes a specific and actionable plan is an open question, and it certainly is not taken seriously in Tel-Aviv. In Cyprus, China supports the presence of the UN peace-keeping mission on the island and this is where its involvement in the conflict ends. Should there be a flare-up between Turkey and Greece –and an armed clash cannot be ruled out after the delimitation of exclusive economic zones between Turkey and Libya in November 2019–, China will sit out and look on. The same will happen if there is yet another hike in migrant flows from Turkey to Greece.

From its viewpoint, Beijing does not have skin in the game, and this is why it has carefully avoided getting embroiled in conflicts in the region. Not only is China not a security provider or guarantor in the eastern Mediterranean, but it is actually a security consumer. Beijing appears content to reap the economic benefits of relative stability and let other security providers take the lead, as long as its own economic interests are not harmed. At present, Chinese military presence in the broader Middle East is restricted to the anti-piracy campaign around the Horn of Africa, the creation of a naval base in Djibouti or ad hoc missions for the evacuation of Chinese citizens, as was the case in Yemen in March 2015. However, it is not inconceivable that the growing worth of Chinese assets in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the large number of Chinese workers in the region, may in the future necessitate the use of hard power in defence of Beijing’s interests. When conflict broke out in Libya in 2011, China lost its investments in the country and had to evacuate 36,000 Chinese workers, with help provided by neighbouring countries.

The growing security imperative

Could all this change and is Beijing likely to consider projecting its military power in the eastern Mediterranean? Could it be that a ‘Mediterranean Djibouti’ is on the cards? Truth be told, it will not be easy for China to fit into the ‘crowded’ security landscape of the region. There is the US 6th Fleet, which regularly docks at Haifa. In Syria, Russia maintains an air base close to Latakia and a naval facility in Tartus. NATO forces use the Incirlik air base in Turkey, despite the tension between Ankara and the Alliance. There are UK military bases and installations in Cyprus and a large NATO naval base in Crete. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was recently on a mission to the eastern Mediterranean in a move that was interpreted in light of the recent Turkish-Libyan maritime border accord. According to US sources, the eastern Mediterranean is turning into one of the world’s most militarised zones, though Washington would attribute this to Russia rather than any other actor.

If China were to set up a Djibouti-like ‘logistics hub’ somewhere in the region, this would bring about a drastic reconfiguration of the sensitive balance of power in the area and would trigger massive opposition both in western capitals and Moscow. What is likely at this stage is that China will outsource security to specialised firms and this is already happening along the so-called ‘Maritime Silk Road’. But this is not to assume that a ‘Mediterranean Djibouti’ remains unthinkable. In a mid- to long-term perspective, Beijing will probably consider this option in its strategic calculus for the eastern Mediterranean and will do it not only for the sake of protecting its assets in the region. There is an obvious mismatch between China’s growing economic, political and military prowess, and its conspicuously passive, even opportunistic (officially referred to as ‘pragmatic’), attitude towards security in the region. All the other permanent members of the UNSC –the US, the UK, France and Russia– are actively involved in the security landscape of the eastern Mediterranean. If Beijing claims the mantle of a great power in the region, it will have to enter the geopolitical fray one way or another.