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.