China in the Eastern Mediterranean

China in the Eastern Mediterranean

Interview with Jens Bastian
May 23, 2023

The Eastern Mediterranean lies at the maritime crossroads of Africa, Europe, and Asia and is a critically important transit area for goods and people. Owing to the region’s geostrategic value, external powers have historically sought to increase their influence there, while relations between regional countries have been complicated by long-standing rivalries and conflicts.

Against this backdrop, China has gradually emerged as an important player in the Eastern Mediterranean, where its economic power has allowed it to develop positive relations with virtually every regional country. In this interview, Daniel Schoolenberg asks Jens Bastian how China’s growing influence might affect the geopolitical dynamics currently at work in the region.

How does the Eastern Mediterranean fit into China’s overall geopolitical and geoeconomic interests, and how does the country’s approach in the region, such as through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), differ from country to country?

The geopolitical and geoeconomic dynamics brought about by China’s emergence as a major player in the Eastern Mediterranean should come as no surprise. China’s infrastructure outreach and lending arrangements in the region through BRI, along with its engagement in so-called vaccine diplomacy in Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, and Lebanon and its recent disaster relief efforts following the February 6 earthquake in Turkey, demonstrate the country’s determination to be seen as a rising “responsible power” in the Eastern Mediterranean.

But this determination also rests on enabling local agency. The willingness of successive Greek governments over the past decade to proactively seek Chinese investment—for example, in the privatization of the port of Piraeus—is a case in point. Moreover, Sino-Turkish cooperation is strongly driven by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Eurasian pivot, as evidenced by the alignment of BRI with Turkey’s Middle Corridor Initiative.

Investments in and acquisitions of ports in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Bulgaria, and possibly in Beirut, Lebanon, as well as lending for railway infrastructure modernization in Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean provide China with two advantages. For one, this process establishes a portfolio of ports and connects these with railway and highway infrastructure as entry points into the European Union and the Western Balkans. Second, seen from a holistic perspective, multi-modal transport corridors in and through Southeast Europe provide China with routing alternatives following the sanctions against Russia that have adversely affected transport operations along the Northern Corridor (the transit countries Poland, Belarus, and Russia).

Finally, Beijing’s growing footprint in the Eastern Mediterranean and support from local actors is a consequence of the lack of political agency of previous U.S. administrations and the EU. The Brussels executive is presenting its Global Gateway Strategy, announced eight years after BRI’s launch, as an alternative to China’s massive infrastructure funding initiative. At the same time, the Biden administration is slowly beginning to re-engage with the Western Balkans and neighboring countries such as Greece, Croatia, and Slovenia. In all three countries, it has raised red flags about further Chinese investment. In Turkey, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly reminded his counterpart that membership in the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is incompatible with Turkey’s NATO membership.

In sum, China’s interest in the region is as much strategic as it is commercial. Its export channels to Southeast Europe are steadily growing and diversifying across sectors, from retail to telecommunication and corporate acquisitions (particularly in Serbia’s energy and minerals sector). The strategic element derives from the opportunities available through these countries’ outreach to China and the financial resources Beijing has provided for transportation and energy infrastructure projects that others have refused to fund.

As Turkey faces a U.S.-backed alignment of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, how might this be counterbalanced by increased cooperation between Turkey and China. What factors does this cooperation depend on?

The U.S.-backed alignment between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel runs parallel to a Chinese-backed alignment between Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Russia. The cornerstones of this alignment were gradually put in place by Beijing. Sino-Turkish engagement has been developing for a decade. China’s energy cooperation agreement with Iran was signed in April 2021. Beijing’s diplomatic efforts at conflict resolution between Iran and Saudi Arabia was recently established without U.S. involvement. China sees its role as a facilitator and mediator, without necessarily having had to sit at the table with Russia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey during their meeting in Moscow on April 4. But it is building reputational capital to exercise a greater role in international reconciliation efforts.

The meeting in Moscow attempted to rebuild relations between Turkey and Syria. The differences between the two countries are deeply entrenched, reducing the chances of a short-term improvement in relations. Syria wants Turkey to leave its territory before any further talks can take place. Turkey is unlikely to withdraw from its de facto protectorate in the border areas of northern Syria because of the risk of a flood of refugees. China’s efforts to facilitate an agreement are integrated into a greater objective: the transformation of the international order and reform of the global governance system. The four lead initiatives of manifesting China’s assertiveness in global governance are the BRI, the Global Security Initiative, the Global Civilization Initiative, and recently the Global Development Initiative.

As regards developments in Ankara, the likely re-election of President Erdogan will solidify Turkey’s gradual reorientation away from “the West.” Its pivot toward Eurasia will continue. Any reset of foreign (economic) policy in the Eastern Mediterranean would take time. The main reason is that entrenched nationalist structures in Turkey make a genuine rearrangement politically contentious (in particular, regarding relations with neighboring Greece).

By contrast, relations with China can continue to expand. But they will require strategic introspection in Ankara. Turkey’s trade deficit with China is significant, and exports to China have not lived up to the expectations of Turkish exporters. Turkey would be well advised to formulate a national China strategy that details what it expects from engagement with and support from China in the coming years. There is currently no such strategic policy document.

Finally, tensions over China’s treatment of the Uighurs continue to complicate the bilateral relationship. Turkey has long-standing historical and cultural ties with the Uighur community in Xinjiang, sometimes referred to as “East Turkestan.” For years, Ankara has resisted pressure from Beijing to extradite Turkish Uighur dissidents to China. Outside the countries of Central Asia, Turkey is home to the largest Uighur diaspora.

Could Turkey’s “Eurasian pivot” lead to increased cooperation between China, Russia, and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean?

Turkey’s Eurasian pivot is twofold. Toward Russia, it is focused on energy security—increasing fossil fuel imports and expanding nuclear technology engagement—and defense cooperation. Toward China, Ankara’s Eurasian turn is investment-led, linked to membership in BRI and the implementation of various infrastructure projects, particularly in the transportation sector. It remains to be seen whether Turkey will actually seek full membership in the SCO. As mentioned earlier, NATO officials have emphasized that such alignment is incompatible with alliance membership.

Any form of triangulation between Moscow, Ankara, and Beijing in the Eastern Mediterranean currently lacks political capital and institutional backing. China’s growing presence in the region is elite-driven, supported by local agency and focused on bilateral strategic arrangements. The same cannot be said for Russia under the current sanctions regime following its invasion of Ukraine. However, Turkey will continue to refuse to be pigeonholed into binary arrangements between Moscow or Beijing, Brussels or Washington.

Greece has long had close relations with China. Yet in recent years it seems to be deepening its relationship with countries in the Indo-Pacific, even signing a strategic partnership agreement with Japan earlier this year. What is motivating this shift, and could this have implications for Sino-Greek relations?

I do not see Greece’s recent signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Japan as signaling a pivot in its foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific. Over the past five years, Greek foreign policy has expanded existing alliances, including with the United States and EU countries, particularly with France in the defense and security arena. It has also sought new alliances or deepened strategic ties with countries such as Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and even Iran. This outreach is motivated by a variety of factors, ranging from energy security, trade, and investment to enhanced defense cooperation and migration challenges.

Moreover, this trend underlines Greece’s willingness and renewed capacity to be a proactive contributor after a hiatus caused by the country’s sovereign debt crisis a decade ago. Greece’s recent outreach to India, Vietnam, Japan, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, among other countries, reflects the broadening of its diplomatic initiatives in Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Athens wants to avoid the impression of being overly focused on China. In doing so, its activities are similar to other EU member states that have “rediscovered” countries in both regions.

But this outreach does not call into question Greece’s engagement with China. Athens remains anchored in the former 17+1 network (now 14+1 after three Baltic countries left the Chinese-led format). The current government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis continues to actively welcome Chinese investment in Greece. This policy stance is supported by a large coalition of governing and opposition parties in the parliament. There is no comparable public debate in Athens about the sale of critical infrastructure to China as there is in Brussels, Berlin, Rome, or Paris.

What has emerged in recent years, however, is a heightened awareness on the part of the U.S. government, beginning under former president Donald Trump and continuing during the Biden administration, about Greece’s engagement with China. The warnings have been heard in Athens and policy has adjusted accordingly. Prospective Chinese investors were excluded from port privatizations in northern Greece (the port of Alexandroupolis) and prevented from submitting bids for an electricity distribution network operator.

The interventions by the U.S. government have contributed to a strategic re-evaluation of Greece’s regional relevance. As a result, security and defense cooperation has significantly increased between Athens and Washington. The port of Alexandroupolis in northeastern Greece, for example, has received added military logistical significance for U.S. forces as a resupplying area for weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

China has recently been playing a facilitating role in the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. When it comes to disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, is it possible China could seek to play a similar mediating role?

By facilitating the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, China has gained diplomatic leverage and foreign policy capital. But the rapprochement and Beijing’s role in it should not have come as a surprise to observers in Washington, Brussels, or Berlin. It is part of China’s determination to establish itself as a viable interlocutor on the international stage and to underline that it can replace traditional interlocutors such as Washington in regions and between countries that have (or had) quasi-frozen conflicts.

But the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean are a different kettle of fish. Any mediation role for China would first require Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus to accept China in such a role. At present, there is little evidence to suggest that such acceptance of greater diplomatic engagement by China is taking place in these countries. The Cyprus question remains a tall order for Beijing. Given that China is not one of the guarantor powers (Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom), any engagement is currently limited to rhetorical advocacy in the context of its Global Security Initiative from April 2022. In the UN Security Council, China has repeatedly supported the one-Cyprus policy in exchange for Nicosia adhering to the one-China principle.

We should also recognize that China under Xi Jinping is choosing its diplomatic interventions carefully and selectively. In the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran, there was low-hanging fruit to pick, as the previous and current U.S. administrations had abandoned any rapprochement efforts. In the case of the Eastern Mediterranean, the Biden administration is proactively re-engaging with the region, thereby signaling to Beijing that the Eastern Mediterranean is effectively off limits. So far, Beijing seems to be accepting this rule of the game.

Jens Bastian is a CATS (Centre for Applied Turkey Studies) Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

This interview was conducted by Daniel Schoolenberg, a former intern with the Political and Security Affairs Group at NBR.