The sustainability of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Mediterranean will depend on whether China can help defuse tensions in the Mediterranean while respecting each country’s domestic concerns.
The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) purports to aims for promoting global peace and cooperation and the economic development of China and BRI related countries. In for it to be a win-win project, the BRI promises both conflict resolutions and respect for the sovereignty of states involved.
However, reaching this aim is never as easy as it might seem on paper. The recent tensions for the natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea exhibit that reality again and are inextricably linked to the future of the BRI as well.
East Mediterranean Crisis from Regional to Global Scale
The disputed natural resources in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea have triggered political tensions on a regional and global level. The statements from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras about mutual exploration activities are the sharpest examples of the regionalised dispute. The persistence of Egyptian governments to increase cooperation with Southern Cyprus in spite of the strong rejection by Turkey and the threat to Israel’s exports are just one example of the far-reaching implications of the dispute.
For instance, the existence of the US Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean also broadens the issue while the US threatens to sanction Turkey. Moreover, Syrian geopolitical significance and Russian troops in Syria further complicate the issue. These military activities make the political environment in the Mediterranean Sea incompatible for cooperation.
China’s foreign policy threatens to upend the current world order and stands to complicate traditional alliances. In the beginning of China’s recent rise, it was about the potential of China, especially after Deng’s Open-Door Policy. In the second stage, the discussion transformed from its possibilities to its increasing influence on the global economy, especially after its membership to the World Trade Organization. In the third and last stage, especially after BRI, the discussion is shifting to China’s ever more complex balancing act between nations.
The main question is how much China will influence the landscape of global politics. Now, since Donald Trump’s ascent to the US presidency, China has been frequently identified as the primary threat to US hegemony. Moreover, trade wars between China and the US show that if China wants to secure its economic power, it has to increase its political and cultural influence. Therefore, the expansion of the BRI can be understood as China’s attempt to secure its economic security and power.
There is no doubt that China uses BRI as a tool to deal with political developments in its neighbourhood. For example, since the increased presence of the US Navy in the South China Sea and disputes with Taiwan in terms of its autonomy, China has tried to the improve its trade relations with the South China Sea countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. The BRI is a tool for Chinese diplomacy, many times has been labelled as ‘debt-diplomacy’ because of the awkward economic position it puts its ‘friends’ in.
BRI and Eastern Mediterranean crisis
The Eastern Mediterranean Sea disputes are significant because of the critical alliances and Chinese port projects in the region. For instance, Port Piraeus holds an important share of China’s trade with the European Union. China also makes considerable investments in roads, highways, and rail that link the port to Central and Western Europe.
In addition, China also continues bilateral negotiations with Turkey on the Port of Izmir, and Istanbul holds strategic importance for the BRI. Its alliance with Egypt constitutes a very critical point for China’s trade because of the significance of the Suez Canal for intercontinental maritime trade from Asia to Europe. Moreover, China also has the right to manage the Port of Ashdod in Israel for forty-nine years.
In contrast, all these ports are in natural competition with each other to take a larger share from the increasing trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, the increase in military presence of the US and other NATO countries in the Mediterranean Sea endangers the security of existing Chinese investments and trade via the Mediterranean.
Mediterranean gas disputes constitute the first stage of the ever-complex journey of China’s Going Global Strategy. It seems that China prefers to remain or appear to remain, more neutral in the politics of the region. It is employing its historical ‘wait and see’ strategy.
On the other hand, since it won’t lose its areas of influence, it chooses to be in alliance with existing governments and to improve economic relations with them. Therefore, China might see the maintenance of its alliance with Egypt as sufficient for China’s national interests because of the importance of the Suez Canal in BRI trade. Instead, if China won’t rethink its alliance with Egypt, Turkey and Israel to help decrease tensions among these countries, then the survival of the BRI will be under threat.
For China, the way to secure the BRI’s trade interests in the Mediterranean is not only to abstain from intervention in the domestic politics of other countries, but also to prevent any conflict between those countries. China needs to take a step further in its diplomacy from non-intervention to the proactive defusing of tensions.