While Russia’s “interfleet naval task force” tootles around the Eastern Mediterranean making like it doesn’t know from Syria, China and India have joined the naval game in the Eastern Med. Both have a regular naval presence off the coast of Somalia, and each has dispatched its most recent antipiracy task group – now relieved on-station – to conduct port visits in the Med. The Chinese units are visiting ports in the Black Sea as well.
China sent a naval task force (coming off antipiracy duty) to visit ports in the Med in 2010. The visits extended into the central Mediterranean during that deployment; this time they are in EASTMED and – a new wrinkle – the Black Sea. India sent a naval task force to participate in an exercise with Atlantic navies – the US, UK, and France – in 2009. This task force also conducted port visits in the Med, primarily in the Western half of the sea. Both nations have regularly sent naval training task groups on worldwide cruises as well, spending time in the Med and conducting port visits. So the unprecedented nature of what’s going on doesn’t come from a complete absence of naval presence in the Med by the Asian nations.
The difference today lies in everything else that’s going on, and the new paths being taken by India’s and China’s navies in particular.
India has just conducted an unprecedented four-day port visit in Haifa, during which Indian sailors roamed Israel as American sailors have for many years, and joint ceremonies were held with the local population. A naval visit to Israel is a big political signal; India would not be sending it lightly.
India also enjoys good relations with Iran, including a big trade boom between the two neighbors, and is edging ever closer to Russia in Asian geopolitics. (For Russia’s part, of course, Vladimir Putin visited Israel this summer and displayed an eye-opening level of sympathy for Israeli concerns. Russia is also Iran’s chief foreign patron, and those aren’t mutually exclusive facts. The world has already stopped being a place in which ideological sympathy between nations trumps geographic necessity. Russia is trying to exert influence over her neighborhood, not foster an ideology. She’ll make common cause on one principle in one place, and on a different principle in another.) At any rate, an Indian naval port visit in Israel is a lower-profile event than a Russian one, but it conveys the sentiments of both Asian nations that Israel is a partner in stability in the rapidly churning Middle East.
India and Russia both have security problems with Sunni Islamist extremists, and neither wants to see radical Sunni Islamism become entrenched in government after government in the Arab world. Iran’s radicalism is comparatively singular; there is only one Shia theocracy, and its geography is limited, unlike the geography of potential Sunni prizes, which stretches from Indonesia to Morocco. Iran’s theocrats are ultimately opposed to the Sunni view of eschatological fulfillment, and the two views will battle it out at some point if Islamism becomes the dominant geopolitical factor in South Asia.
Iran has her uses as a foil in the emerging drama, and India and Russia will make use of her if they can. They are less worried about Iran than they are about China and Sunni Islamism – especially as united with the Arab Spring. Take that away from this piece, if you take nothing else.
Speaking of China, her task group has completed a port visit in Ukraine (“In your face, Russia”), and is now conducting separate port visits in Bulgaria and Turkey. The visit of People’s Liberation Army Naval (PLAN) ships to the Black Sea is unprecedented, as will be their visit to Israel at the end of their Med circuit. Yes, they’re scheduled to go to Israel too.
I believe it is invalid to interpret the Chinese deployment as a joint signal with Russia to discourage Western intervention in Syria. I don’t think China is really worried that we’re going to intervene, at least not with military force. China’s deployment is a signal of competition with Russia and India – separately and together – for the future of the Eastern hemisphere. The Chinese visits to Ukraine and Bulgaria are as in-your-face as it gets, Russia-wise; Moscow is very sensitive about foreign navies in the Black Sea. China’s deployment is not an expression of solidarity with her northern neighbor.