Chinese Garland of Pearls in Mediterranean: A Strategic Loop of Power and Influence


Chinese strings of pearls in the Mediterranean are gradually forming a huge strategic Chinese garland of Pearls. It is surely going to be an increasingly tightening grip over the NATO bastion and EU security structure. The absence of collective EU economic vision so far and the NATO division are conveniently facilitating the Chinese preponderance in their waters and security hub. The Brexit has already weakened the stature of the Union which is a favourable condition to Chinese unabated expansion and influence. The evolving ‘garland of pearls’ in the Mediterranean can become the scene of Chinese ‘Anaconda Policy’- surround and squeeze.

Chinese hold on such strategic ports as Piraeus in Greece, Trieste and Genoa in Italy and string of six ports in eastern Mediterranean- Haifa and Ashdod in Israel, Tripoli in Lebanon and Latakia and Tartous in Syria and Kumport in Turkey has changed the strategic balance in the region. Besides, there are many more ports in the region trying to attract the Chinese investment. These include Port Said, Marsaxlokk, Tangier and Casablanca in southern side of Mediterranean and Valencia, Marseille, Genoa, Trieste and Piraeus in the northern side. An overview makes it a garland of Chinese pearls in the Mediterranean put together the Chinese strings of pearls all around this Western strategic water. This evolving strategic loop is sure to mitigate the western security dominance over this water and therefore expand Chinese influence in the countries around specially Europe.

This trend of increasing Chinese investment has raised numerous questions and unsettled the European Union and its policy. Any effective response can be made only with correct understanding of implications it involves. How much it is unavoidable or acceptable given the strategic nature of the ports must be perused properly. On 10th April, 2019, the new EU FDI Screening Regulation has come into force to ensure security and public order in Europe in the face of the foreign direct investment in the Eurozone. The first EU level coordination mechanism will be fully operational in all member states on 11th, October, 2020.

In the wake pandemic the European Commission on 25th March, 2020 issued guideline to ensure effective foreign investment screening against the economic vulnerability during the crisis. It aims at preserving critical assets and strategic companies like infrastructure which is fundamental for public order and security without undermining the general open foreign investment policy. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President emphasised that “As in any crisis, when our industrial and corporate assets can be under stress, we need to protect our security and economic sovereignty. The EU is and will remain an open market for foreign direct investment. But this openness is not unconditional.”

Both EU and NATO are aware of the growing need of an enhanced cooperation as the key response to multiple security challenge from new Russia, turmoil in West Asia, cyberwar to terrorism. The list has formally added China also as a systemic rival and competitor. The recognition of cooperation between these two organizations gained attention towards end of the 1990s. It was around 2000 only that initial European reservation mainly that of UK and France were overcome and joint security vision and action of EU and NATO began. From then onwards, the cooperation was continuously buttressed and shaped through 2002 Berlin Plus arrangements, 2010Lisbon Summit and the Role of NATO in the security architecture of the EU, 2016 Warsaw  and 2018 EU-NATO, Brussels Joint Declaration have boosted the cooperation for security of the transatlantic community based on their shared threat perception and response requirements. The Strategic Concept of ‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’ of 2010 underlined and espoused the values and strategic objective for the next decade in transforming security environment with necessary political and military response. The core areas of cooperation are capacity-building of the alliance and partners, defence-industrial issues, military mobilization, promotion of peace and security agenda. Despite the national rivalry in Europe and the transatlantic divisions which came to fore in the London Summit, December, 2019, the NATO 2030 launched on 8th June, 2020 has again started re-building the cooperation needed for the shared security of the transatlantic community.

But the EU response has not been effective so far in the face of the growing transatlantic schism on various issues. The recent blow has come with the concern over possible withdrawal of US troops from Germany to be deployed in Poland. It was announced by US president Donald Trump on 15th June, 2020, accusing Germany as “delinquent” in NATO contribution and unfair trade with United States. The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Mass, has said “We think that the US presence in Germany is important for the security not just of Germany but also for the security of the United States and especially for the security of Europe” during his visit to Poland. However, the critical response came from the German Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer when he said that, “NATO is not a trade organization and security is not a commodity. NATO is formed on solidarity, on trust. And it is based on common values and common interests,” on 16th June, 2020 in Berlin.

Such growing cleavage in the transatlantic alliance is a serious rift in the face of the Chinese strategic rise in the Mediterranean ports through investment and management control. These Chinese moves under its BRI vision are primarily geo-economic in its declared pursuit but its long term strategic and security dimension are natural corollary. Such move is bound to erode the necessary faith NATO has been built on and therefore its deterrence capacity watered down against traditional challenge from Russia or new formidable challenge of China.

The matter has assumed serious dimension with strategic closeness of Russia and China. The first ever joint naval exercise code-named “Joint Sea-2015(17th -21st May) of the two in the Mediterranean was important as it was conducted far away from their naval bases in a show of their readiness in sea areas of the world and in the strategic water of the West in particular. In July, 2017, a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) flotilla en route to their Joint Exercise with Russian Navy in Baltic Sea, conducted a brief live-fire drill in the Mediterranean Sea to hone their combat skills. Besides, Six-say joint defence operations, the “Joint Sea-2019”featuring joint air defence drills, joint anti-submarine drills and joint submarine rescue drills is important development in this regard. In December (27th -30th) 2019, China-Russia joint naval exercise was conducted along with Iran in the Gulf of Oman with the declared aim of world peace and maritime security in the region.

Given the increasing numbers, frequency and different locations of joint naval exercises of China and Russia it has assumed the character of a de facto military alliance which has surely exacerbated the security concerns of the European and Mediterranean NATO community and their security structure. The BRI deals are basically aimed at promotion of trade and related infrastructure development. But this economic clout naturally spurs the strategic influence and military advantage. In July, 2017, a Chinese naval fleet came to the port Piraeus on friendly visit as a promotion of their growing friendship and cooperation. Such developments will keep on increasing and become normal practices in the Chinese held ports of the Mediterranean Sea.

Amidst these naval developments, there is growing conflicting policies of the NATO members and hostile encounters of their navies in the Mediterranean are making the matter worse. When the French sailors were chasing a suspicious cargo carrying arms for Libya, the Turkish frigate warned them with missile strike- a matter of grave weakness for NATO and security projection of its members. This is the result of their rival policies in the Libyan conflict.

EU is concerned about the growing US-China competition emerging like a new cold war and looking for options to avoid falling into this binary. The launch of outline of NATO 2030 on 8th June, 2020 made it apparent that the rise of China has fundamentally changed the balance of power and a new competition for economic and technological hegemony. The EU-China summit, 2019 joint statement has committed for EU-China strategic partnership and expressed support for multilateralism and rule-based trade to build their economic relationship. Thus the EU and China video meet or conference on 22nd June, 2020 assumed significance amidst rising US-China tension as the European Union is pursuing a non-confrontational policy towards China to remain a relevant factor in the emerging world order.

Moreover, the strategic loop of China made up of its strategic ports pose an unprecedented serious challenge to the weakening EU and loosening NATO. Therefore, there is an urgent need to fix the fissures in the NATO and division in EU to face China and its expansion with strength and matching strategy before the Chinese loop strangulate it and impose its irresistible force of influence. 

Dr.Khushnam P N
Dr.Khushnam P N
Independent IR and Regional Security Researcher & Analyst, Bengaluru, India


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