In spring 2015, we may witness a naval exercise of Russia and China in the Mediterranean. It is yet a statement. However, if the exercise takes place, it will send relevant messages to Europe and the US. The global naval balance of power is shifting to China’s and Russia’s advance. Time for Europe to do something.Do not expect a large exercise
“‘We plan to conduct a regular joint naval exercise in the Mediterranean next spring,’ said Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, according to the Russian TASS news agency. […] Shoigu did not specify the nature of the exercises but Russia and China completed a bilateral exercise in May.” (Source: Sam LaGrone, “Russia and China to Hold 2015 Naval Exercises in Mediterranean, Pacific“, USNI News, 20.11.2014).
Russian announcements have already to be taken with care, even though it came not out of nothing, but rather after meeting in Beijing. However, there have been plenty statements from Moscow, e.g. about naval presences in the South China Sea and the Caribbean or the construction of indigenous aircraft carriers, that never turned into reality. Moreover, there has not yet been an accompanying statement from Beijing.
It may be just a Russian hoax, nevertheless there is a realistic prospect in it. In spring 2015, China could do what has done with all its counter-piracy task forces. Once the mission in the Gulf of Aden is done and the new task force has arrived, the relieved task force will go for another duty before returning home. Hence, what we may see, is that 2-3 Chinese warships, one supply vessel and probably one submarine will transit Suez to meet with a Russian task force in Mediterranean.
The Russian task force will not consist out of more than 3-4 surface warships, few suppliers and 1-2 submarines. Do not expect a larger exercise. The Chinese are likely to insist on some kind of parity, because the world’s second largest power does not want be humiliated by looking like Russia’s junior partner.
Concerning the theater, the exercise will take place in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia and China have both been calling ports in Cyprus. Moreover, going to the Western Mediterranean will be too much for the Chinese and unnecessarily provoke the Europeans (although Beijing would probably not care). Russia’s interests, as already deployments since 2011 have shown, are also mainly in the Eastern Mediterranean. After a couple of days, the exercise will be over and the Chinese will make their way to further port calls or immediately start their long way home.The exercises’ messages
The Sino-Russian exercise would add another point on the list of Russia’s increasing military assertiveness: Bomber and fighter flights in the Baltic, Black Sea, Caribbean, Pacific and North Atlantic, the show of force in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the recent deployment to the South Pacific for the G20 Summit.
Moreover, the exercise will be a success of Russian lobbying in Beijing. My guess is that, due to the remaining tensions with the West, the initiative to join forces in the Mediterranean came from Moscow. Why should China ask for an exercise in the Mediterranean that it does not really need? Instead, with an eye on the continued Sino-Russian exercises in the Pacific, both countries will get what they are looking for. The PLAN gets its practical training it needs in Asia and more experience in expeditionary deployments, while the Russian get the demonstration of political will in the Mediterranean they are looking for.
That Russia brings another rising power, hostile to Western values, to the Mediterranean is a message to Europe. Again, Moscow aims to stress that is back as a great power and that Europe is simply incapable of doing anything about it. Though Beijing intends to send a political message by a Mediterranean naval deployment, it will be about global reach and dedicated to Washington. There is no need for Beijing to send any naval messages to the Europeans, who are strategically irrelevant to China.
Russia and China are rising naval powers
Should the Sino-Russian exercise in the Mediterranean ever take place, it will be a remarkable illustration about global naval power shifts. While Europe has given up an effective presence East of Suez, except the counter-piracy task forces and an UK SSN driving circles, Russia and Chinas start to step up combined on the global stage. That does not mean that Sino-Russian task forces will ever go to places to fight Falklands-Style Wars. However, it shows us, who has global ambitions and political will and who has not.
There is no further need to comment on Europe’s military decline. However, it is worth noting that China has left the rank of a Medium Regional Force Projection Navy, but has not yet arrived on the rank of Medium Global Force Projection (for the ranks see Eric Grove, “The Future of Sea Power“, Annapolis: US Naval Institute Press, 1990, p. 236-240). Instead, the PLAN is somewhere in between. The PLAN could be called a major regional, minor global force projection Navy. The same applies for Russia, although, except the sea-based nuclear force, China has already surpassed Russia in terms of naval power. China is building indigenous aircraft carriers, while Russia has to go shopping for helicopter carriers in France.
Perspectively, the key word in the Russian statement is “regular”. Given there would be annual Sino-Russian exercises in the Mediterranean, it would be the ultimate naval humiliation for Europe. It would be an annual statement about Europe having effectively declined to a regional power being subject by global demonstrations of political will by others. However, we are far away from that. While Russia will remain interested in engaging the Chinese in the Mediterranean, Beijing could easily conclude one day that they have learned enough lessons about expeditionary deployments and simply do not need the Russians anymore.
How Europe should react
First of all, the exercise would be a Christmas gift in spring to NATO’s intelligence services. The US and Europeans should spy on the exercises with SIGINT, surveillance aircraft and submarines. Especially for the Europeans, it is a unique opportunity to learn about China’s and Russia’s capabilities, because they are incapable of gaining this information in the Pacific.
In addition, Europe should neither condemn nor ignore the exercise. As long as Russia and China exercise in international waters, there is nothing wrong with that. Instead, Europe should wish the Russians a safe trip home and ask to Chinese to come in for a friendly port visit. Greatness is better than grumbling, having a chat with the Chinese is better than by harsh press releases pushing them into Russia’s arms.
Moreover, Europeans should re-consider their absence from relevant global naval deployments. The political purpose therefore would be to make clear that Europe has still global interests that go beyond trade. Julian Lindley-French has rightly observed Europe’s retreat from power and the failure of Brussels’ wishful thinking. Hence, the geopolitically right reaction for Europe would be to show that Europe still has to offer more than words and that hard power has not been abandoned.
Therefore, the Royal Navy’s Cougar Deployment 2015 could be joined by other European navies. It makes no sense for the Europeans to show their flags at the Spratlys or Senkakus, due to the lack of a political purpose. However, a trip to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea – disaster relief in this region is a very realistic operational scenario for European navies – and Australia may be sufficient to demonstrate the remaining global reach. The way back via French Polynesia and Panama would make the global message clear – really doing this is not that much about capabilities, but rather about political will. The admirals will find solutions for all obstacles, when their political lords and masters tell them that they have to.