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.
The naval competition is heating up all around Asia. The activity in the Med is one facet of it, and an indicator of the strategic significance of the Med to the calculations of the Asian powers. Neither Russia, nor India, nor China can tolerate seeing herself flanked by the power of the others in EASTMED. They all three see a necessity for being there because of geographic realities and their competition elsewhere.
It is essential to reiterate the reminder once more that none of them would perceive either a significantly increased threat or important new opportunities if the United States were still acting according to our character since World War II. We no longer are, and the current proliferation of foreign naval expeditions is what had to result.
In the South China Sea in July, China dispatched an amphibious landing ship to anchor out near the Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island in the Kalayaan archipelago (designated as municipality of Palawan by the Philippine government). Earlier this year, in May, China had completed a radar station on nearby Subi Reef. See the map for how close these features are to the Philippines, and how far from China. The Chinese activity certainly has the look of China trying to enforce her extremely excessive maritime claims: claims that would deny her neighbors around the South China Sea the use of most of their EEZs.
Chinese fishing vessels, accompanied by two PLAN frigates, gathered around Pag-asa for a week after the landing ship was sighted, operating in waters justifiably claimed by the Philippines. (According to Filipino news sources, the ships were dispersing by 30 July.)
But all of East Asia is gravely concerned about China’s naval shows of force. A Russian admiral spoke openly last week of the Russian navy seeking foreign bases in Vietnam and the Seychelles as well as Cuba, a clear signal of Russia’s intention to act as a counterweight to Chinese power in South Asia. (Clear statements of intent rather than coy denials are a new set-out for the Russians on this matter. One more reminder that everything has already changed.)
India has wasted no time establishing a new naval air base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which command the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca (SOM), the highest-trafficked chokepoint in the world. The new base, situated on the southern tip of Great Nicobar Island, is India’s southernmost, 300 miles south of her older naval base at Port Blair on Andaman Island. The great fear of naval experts is that China will seek to control the SOM and exert the major influence over the Indian Ocean. India’s new pattern of visiting East Asia with a naval task force each year is also a measure designed to counter China.
If you want security for yourself in Asia, you have to have buffers and blocking mechanisms against your principal competitors – whichever direction they may come from. That means alliances, influence, and raw power on both ends of the continent, and the vast interior in between. All three of Asia’s land giants are cultivating their alliances, being where the others are, and keeping their options open (e.g., China visiting both Israel and Turkey). That’s what’s going on right now. Syria is a significant issue, but for them, it’s largely a matter of geopolitics, and blocking or creating a threat: Russia and India seeking to block a Sunni-Islamist geopolitical triumph, China seeking to dilute their effectiveness and increase her own with the courtship of Turkey and Russia’s uneasy neighbors.
The stakes are high for them. American power isn’t going to help stabilize their problems or stifle their initiative. It’s open season on the status quo in the Eastern hemisphere. In the last three years, nothing in geopolitics has been clearer than that.
Note: One of my first blog posts, in February 2009, foresaw the rise of naval influence by Asian outsiders in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the increase in both their activism and regional instability. Its title is “Not Your Father’s Cold War.” I followed it in June 2009 with a 4-post series on how the competition between brands of Islamism would throw the Islamic world into chaos, in particular in the Middle East. Much of what was forecast in those earlier posts has already come true. The 4-post series was reintroduced in February 2011 when the Arab Spring was underway.
This has all been foreseeable. If the US is not using its power, the world will revert to its historically normal condition: everyone armed, arming up further, and seeking to enlarge his sphere of influence and push the boundaries against smaller, weaker powers. Some nations are less aggressive than others, but there’s no room for non-aggression. The Pax Americana is dead.
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