For more than two decades, the United States has taken Eastern Mediterranean maritime security for granted. But the discovery of energy sources is changing the regional security landscape, eliciting maritime competition over exclusive economic zones (EEZs) among Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Turkey, similar to maritime competition over energy sources in the East and South China Sea. Regional actors such as Israel and Turkey are also building up their naval capabilities, with Turkey recently changing the naval balance via plans for a new aircraft carrier.
The United States has three main concerns in the Eastern Mediterranean: conflict between Israel and its neighbors; the division of Cyprus; and European energy security. However, creeping maritime militarization of the region is putting U.S. interests at risk, and the U.S. Sixth Fleet based at Naples could well be drawn into any attempt to defuse a crisis at sea. Moreover, China has also entered the Mediterranean security scene and become more assertive in this region post-Arab Spring.
China’s new proactive behavior is driven by the need to secure energy sources in the Middle East and North Africa and determination to prevent another “Libya case” of Western intervention for regime change, wherein Beijing suffered huge investment losses and had to evacuate their citizens. It is also fearful about increasing Chinese Uyghur separatist ties with Syrian jihadists that threaten to attack and destabilize Xinjiang, as well as the potential threat of jihadists accessing Xinjiang-based nuclear warheads.
As such, China has embarked on a new proactive diplomacy, with three UN Security Council vetoes on Syria and dispatching its warships to the coast of Syria to conduct naval war games with Russia. This makes Syria a ground zero of great power rivalry with China, Russia, and Iran on one side and the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and much of NATO on the other. Indeed, Chinese scholars call Syria the new “Afghanistan” as an international hotbed of jihadi fighters exporting extremism abroad as well as a battleground for proxy wars between great powers. In light of this heightened tension, former NATO SACEUR Admiral James G. Stavridis in a 2013 Foreign Policy op-ed called for the United States to adopt an Eastern Mediterranean strategy.
Some scholars have likened Eastern Mediterranean to a new Persian Gulf — meaning the United States has similar interests in safeguarding U.S. allies and protecting freedom of navigation — and argued for a new U.S. force posture in the Eastern Mediterranean by establishing new cooperative security sites and regional defense partnership. In this regard, China can play a constructive role as an extra-regional partner for joint stabilization of the Mediterranean.
With forecasts that China will be a top LNG importer by 2020, and with its growing interests in Eastern Mediterranean gas, Beijing has a stake in regional maritime security. It also shares convergent interests with regional actors in counter-terrorism against al Qaeda-affiliated groups. In instances like Syria where China and the U.S./NATO share divergent interests, cooperative security engagement with China would contribute to a confidence-building template for crisis management to prevent miscalculation and escalation, and help stabilization of the Mediterranean.
Christina Lin is a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC, and a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University.