The Mediterranean Sea has great significance for all countries, especially for those who want to engage in international trade, politics and security where a new crucial player emerged: China through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Politics in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea has witnessed many noticeable and deep changes in recent years. Egypt and Israel have seen a rapprochement in their relations in contrast to the expectations before the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s government in a bloody coup in 2013, which brought General Abdel Fattah el Sisi into power.
Turkey-Israel relations continue to be very fragile at the political level, and Turkey has a very structural and historically difficult relationship with Greece because of the Cyprus issue. The Syrian civil war has also revealed the significance of security in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean’s geopolitical position is not the sole factor that gives it importance in the region. Discovery of significant natural gas reserves has also changed the picture. After the discovery of Leviathan natural gas reserves, the nature of the Cyprus issue, the ongoing Syrian civil war, the domestic politics of many countries such as Lebanon and Egypt as well as the alliances in the region have seen a shift.
China on the route of the Mediterranean
In addition to regional players, another factor that can change the political picture in the Mediterranean Sea is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese authorities say that the Belt and Road strategy is continuously evolving which they hope will have a global impact.
China’s presence in the Mediterranean Sea is a very new factor in regional politics; however, the impact on regional countries like Greece, Israel and Egypt show us how its presence can be influential in regional politics and how that dynamic can affect the current gas crisis in the region.
The answer to these questions requires a look at Chinese investments in the region. On February 11, 2019, the Port of Piraeus and the North Adriatic Sea Port administrations signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at strengthening relations and cargo flows between the two ports. In addition, China also invested in the high-speed railroads from this port to Western Europe through Belgrade and Budapest. Once this project is complete, it will reduce freight transport times from the Suez Canal to Western Europe. This situation means that China has already started to establish its network in the Mediterranean Sea.
However, the growing political complexity in the Eastern Mediterranean will mean that China will have a difficult time juggling the competing and diverging interests of the regional countries.
China’s focus at the moment seems to be on trade, rather than immediately involving itself with politics. It has signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement with Egypt which would allow Chinese products to be transported from the Suez Canal via Egyptian territorial waters to the North Adriatic Sea Port in Italy.
In addition to the agreement with Egypt, China aims to diversify its energy imports from Israel through energy sources in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, considering the volatility in Middle East politics, there isn’t any guarantee for China that good relations with Egypt would be a solution for BRI in the wider Middle Eastern context. Political and economic fragility in Greece might result in China rerouting its BRI routes unavoidably to Turkey, which is very feasible for Chinese and European transportation.
China, however, doesn’t have a comprehensive strategy on the Mediterranean Sea as a whole. It sees the region as partial and tries to develop its strategies accordingly.
For Alice Ekman, China is less about developing a specific strategy for the region than using this region to internationalize and develop its centrally defined priorities.
A long-held Chinese policy and one that has been reiterated by China’s President Xi Jinping is that it doesn’t interfere in the affairs of other countries. This policy while allowing China to be flexible in its approach to international relations will eventually have to contend with emerging crises that will require it to take political stances.
The gas territorial issues between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Northern Cyprus, Israel and Egypt all have the potential to make the scene more complex for China. Therefore how China and its BRI project navigates this complex web of competing interests will be important.
Even though China seems to be uninterested in conflicts in the Eastern Mediterranean, the current investments in the Port of Piraeus in Greece and agreement with Egypt seem to be sufficient for the BRI. The picture may change depending upon the gas competition amongst the other Mediterranean countries.
If China does want to sustain the BRI project in the Mediterranean, which is not in doubt, it must carefully approach its relations with regional countries, as well as its diplomatic role to establish regional cooperation and peace to decrease conflicts.