PORT SAID, Egypt — Egypt has seen no shortage of empires come and go, from its own ancient civilisations to those of Greece, Rome, Britain and France. Now, it is among the outposts of the latest Mediterranean power: China.
Situated at the northern end of the Suez Canal, the Port Said Container Terminal is one of the busiest in the region, vital for shipments not only to Egypt but also much of Europe and the Middle East.
Like several other key ports in the region — including Piraeus in Greece and Naples in Italy — it is now partially owned by China. The state-owned Cosco Pacific holds 20 per cent of the terminal, helping making it one of the dominant — if not the dominant — Mediterranean port operators.
Cosco stresses that it is a purely commercial venture and many analysts agree. But few doubt that Beijing has made a wider geopolitical decision to become much more involved in the region.
For the last two years, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has sent one or more warships through the Suez Canal to visit southern European ports, the furthest its fleet has ever operated from home.
But China is not the only great power now increasing its involvement in the area. With Russia sending warships to positions off Syria and the United States signalling it too intends to take the region more seriously, the Mediterranean is clearly no longer seen as the strategic backwater many believed it had become.
“The assumption that the Mediterranean would become a purely Western sphere of influence appears to have been premature,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the United States Naval War College in Rhode Island.
“The Chinese are showing their flag in an area far from their traditional area of operations in part to show that they are a global power. The renewed Russian deployments are part intended as a sign that Moscow has not gone away.”
Other strategic shifts are also taking place in the region.
The “Arab Spring” has unleashed a period of unrest and instability across North Africa and beyond while the eurozone crisis has left troubled southern European states struggling with debt and searching for ready investment.
Meanwhile, the gas platforms beginning to dot the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean have unleashed a scramble for resources that has further exacerbated pre-existing tensions between Cyprus, Turkey and Israel.
The US had hoped it could pull back from the area, helping transfer military resources to the Pacific and South China Sea as part of a pivot to Asia aimed heavily at containing a rising China. But last year’s Libya conflict provided stark warning that European states had distinctly limited capacity, and as the financial crisis bites defence budgets have been further cut.
“I don’t see a conflict,” says Gvosdev at the Naval War College. “But... [it] does make it more difficult to do an Asia pivot on the cheap.”
US destroyers to Spain
In 2011 Admiral Gary Roughead — at the time Chief of Naval Operations and the professional head of the US Navy — told senior officers the US needed to return to the Mediterranean.
In the years since the end of the cold war and Balkan conflicts that followed, the US had quietly stopped maintaining a permanent aircraft carrier there as it focused on Iraq and Afghanistan and confrontation with Iran.
Limited resources mean putting a permanent carrier back in the region is all but impossible. But other ships now look set to take up a much more permanent presence.
Last year, the Pentagon announced it was deploying four state-of-the-art missile destroyers to the Spanish port of Rota, in part to counter any missile threat to Europe from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East.
In November, as Israeli forces pounded Gaza in their brief air campaign against Hamas, several US assault ships and escorts entered the eastern Mediterranean in what was seen as a precursor to any evacuation of US citizens. It was the sort of deployment military officials say will likely become more common in the years to come.
Nor, current and former officials say, does Washington have any intention of letting gas tensions between its various Eastern Mediterranean allies turn into open conflict.
“The Maghreb and Levant are clearly going to be unstable for some time,” Roughead, now retired and a senior visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, told Reuters. “The eastern Mediterranean is also worrying. There’s no doubt it’s going to require more attention.”
Syria worries drive Russian presence
It was the positioning of a US carrier off Syria in November 2011 that appeared to prompt one of the largest Russian naval moves in recent years. As Bashar Al Assad’s crackdown on rebels and protesters became ever bloodier, Washington had quietly moved it and its battle group towards Syria.
In what may or may not have been a direct response, Moscow sent its only aircraft carrier — the Soviet era Admiral Kuznetzov — into the same area to visit its naval base at Tartus. In Moscow, Russian officials gave distinctly conflicting signals to local and international media, some denying any link to the Syrian conflict while others saying it was a deliberate warning to the West to back off.
On January 17, Russian news agencies again reported two warships were heading to Syria for exercises and to deliver munitions to Tartus, although it was not immediately clear whether that meant the undisclosed weaponry was headed for Assad’s forces or Russia’s own stockpiles there.
The Russian naval base at Tartus remains Moscow’s only Mediterranean port. Retaining access to it is seen as a major factor in Russia’s refusal to abandon Assad.
When a Chinese destroyer and frigate sailed through Suez into the Mediterranean in August last year, several analysts suggested they were aiming to join joint naval exercises being held between Moscow and Damascus.
But instead, they sailed up through the Bosporus Strait to the Black Sea to visit Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania.
China’s ‘strategic ambivalence’
“The fact that it did not seize the opportunity to hold drills together with the Russians could confirm that Beijing is not warming to the prospect of a new cold war and continues to prefer strategic ambivalence about polarisation,” Jonathan Holsag, research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, wrote in Chinese state-owned newspaper the Global Times in August.
Some European and US security analysts remain nervous over the Chinese expansion — particularly in Naples, where the Chinese-owned terminal directly overlooks NATO’s main Mediterranean naval base. But in Greece, the Chinese investment remains relatively popular. With the purchase of new cranes and other equipment, Cosco has increased container traffic through its terminal by some 70 per cent each of the three years of operation.
The vast majority of containers handled by the port are shipped on elsewhere in the world, turning Piraeus into a much more significant international hub.
“This investment has been very important for Greece,” says Tassos Vamvakidis, deputy manager of the Cosco-run container terminal. “At a time of economic difficulty, it is very important.”
One veteran British naval officer compared China’s approaching the Mediterranean to that of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, when its commercial expansion was at least as important as its military.
Chinese officials might object to that comparison. But there seems little doubt they intend to stay — and that includes a high profile if occasional military presence.
“There are many good reasons for Beijing to show its flag,” wrote Hoslag in “Global Times”, a nationalist tabloid published by the Communist Party mouthpiece the “People’s Daily”. “It is better to make countries around the Mediterranean used to Chinese naval presence than to alarm them later on.”