By Sena Namlu
“Each of the carriers operating in the Mediterranean as this time represent 100,000 tons of international diplomacy,” – Jon Huntsman, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia
Sitting at the junction of three continents and main international trade routes, the Mediterranean Sea has been of capital importance for both littoral states and international powers. The name of Mediterranean itself, originating from the Latin term (mediues terra) and meaning “the sea in the middle of the earth,” illustrates its significant place in international affairs. While for regional powers, such as Italy, Greece, and Turkey, the Mediterranean Sea determines their national security and prosperity, it equally has strategic implications for states outside of the basin with regards to furthering influence over different regions and connection with other parts of the world.
The United States has been engaged in the region since the 19th century. America’s involvement reached its apogee during the Cold War; a time when two superpowers vied for control over the Mediterranean region, encompassing an immense maritime zone between the Straits of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles and the Suez Canal. The Mediterranean Sea has witnessed many examples of coercive naval diplomacy, historically known as Gunboat Diplomacy, which involves the application of naval forces to compel or deter a state. By the end of the Cold War, the United States had achieved unity in the Mediterranean, for the first time since ancient Rome, through bilateral and multilateral political arrangements; transforming the Sea into an almost a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) lake or a Mare Nostrum for the Alliance.
The emerging threats and complex regional challenges of the post-Cold War era brought renewed attention to the Mediterranean and forced states to engage in the region, notwithstanding the United States’ gradual retreatment. The American policy of withdrawal was initiated with the Obama Administration, but was taken further in the Trump era. Rising regional and international powers are eager to fill this expanding void left in America’s wake, seeking to gain as much control as they can in such a promising maritime area.
Russia, which has historically had strong incentives to access the warm watersof the Mediterranean, has successfully exploited the long-lasting conflicts in the Mediterranean as well as the current power gap, leading to the establishment of a permanent presence through heavy investments in the Syrian Port of Tarsus, where now it has both an air base and naval facility.
China has adopted a relatively peaceful method of further its influence in the Mediterranean through weaponization of its global supply chain. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the Mediterranean is a crucial part, led to the country investing in the high-tech industries of Europe such as aerospace and artificial intelligence, and connecting said ventures through an immense supply chain comprised of many Mediterranean ports in which Chinese state-owned companies have significant holdings. Following the acquisitions of ports in several coastal states such as Italy, Malta and Greece, Chinese state firms now have significant influence in one-tenth of all European port capacity. Beijing is orchestrating every instrument at its disposal, including political, economic, and security creating a symphony in the words of Chinese Foreign Minister, in order to expand Chinese influence and presence around the world. One of the major concerns is of the possibility that China may not hesitate to use its civilian port facilities to the military end as it has done so in the past. Furthermore, Beijing’s previous experience of dispatching one of its most impressive-looking warships, the 689-foot-long amphibious transport dock Jinggangshan to Syria” to participate in Russian coercive diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean, makes the menace even greater for Europe and the United States.
Turkish claims based on the Blue Homeland doctrine and enforced through the dispatch of the seismic research vessel Oruç Reis raised the unresolved issues in the Mediterranean relating to maritime delimitation and jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean. As the country with the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, Turkey regards drilling activities on the continental shelf as its fundamental right and disregards any solution that “confines Turkey to the shores.” Turkish foreign policy objectives relate the region directly to national security, rights, and interests. Additionally, Turkey’s perception of being left out in the Eastern Mediterranean based on the regional cooperation efforts excluding Turkey such as EastMed Gas Forum aggravates the tension and induces Ankara to resort more to coercive naval diplomacy. The successful outcome of natural gas reserve exploration in the Black Sea also strengthened Turkey’s commitment towards drilling operations in the Mediterranean.
Countries opposed to Turkey’s actions in the region gathered around France, whose expectations for further political and military supports towards the European Union and NATO remain unmet, have agreed on seeking regional cooperation. France that has been the most vocal European power in opposing Turkey’s regional claims so far, backed by Greece and Cyprus with joint military drilling operations and deployment of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the Eastern Mediterranean. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron seems quite determined to resist resurgent Turkish moves in the Mediterranean and has closed the ranks with its regional partners at all costs as being lacked of concrete support from the European Union and NATO members in its battling with Turkey.
Meanwhile, Turkey similarly seeks to strengthen its hand through bilateral arrangements with another regional actor. Ankara signed two memoranda of understanding with Libya’s United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), one of which regulates maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea in line with the Turkish claims and the other envisaging further security and military cooperation. These agreements are followed by a similar deal between Greece and Egypt.
In pursuit of the Greece-Egypt deal, Prime Minister of Greece Mitsotakis and the President of Egypt Sisi reflected their expectation of more decisive U.S. involvement in the region under a Biden Administration. Nevertheless, given the other prominent challenges facing America such as extreme domestic polarization and the rising Chinese threat in the Pacific region, it is hard to predict whether the election of “Joe Bidenopoulos”, as he introduced himself to a group of Greek Americans will result in a rotation of American attention towards the region and to what extent this shift will change the course in the Mediterranean. Biden will likely give more weight to international organizations, beginning with enhancement of the EU and NATO’s downsized role in the region. However, geopolitical challenges require further engagements. Besides Russia’s permanent return to the area, China’s rapprochement with America’s most important strategic partner in the region, Israel puts American regional and international interests at higher risk. Similarly, Huawei’s expansion based on the Digital Silk Road Initiative accordingly to ports-buying strategy raise the caveat of filching data from NATO allies and friends in the region.
There is little doubt that the President-elect Biden will find himself in the middle of various complex and entrenched issues related to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea once he takes the oval office. It is clear that defusing tensions, restoring once-existing U.S. and NATO’s influence, and countering the rise of Russia and China as the alternative strategic partners for the region will occupy the top of the lists of American policies in the area. Any help and support provided by the regional partners will be beneficial for the United States. Although the hard task of gathering regional NATO allies France, Greece and Turkey, around a table has become more challenging than it has been before, Biden Administration can bring a breath of fresh air in relations and create incentives for each party to bolster dialogue. Depending on the new American leader’s ability to manage sensitive and tangled regional relations and find a common ground among highly divided and determined actors, it will soon be seen whether this glimmer of hope may blaze out or rapidly fade away.
Sena Namlu is a youth and women’s right activist. She has actively partaken in social profit organizations working on particularly girls and youth empowerment — their inclusion in policy-making, conflict resolution, and peace-building processes, and initiated social projects. She is a board member of YCDC, the representative institution of Youth 20 in Turkey, and attended the Y20 Summit in Argentina and G(irls)20 Summit in Japan as Turkey’s delegate. She is also a fellow of the Women in Conflict 1325 Fellowship Programme. After graduation, she worked within Doctors of World Turkey Office as a Grant Officer. Sena is currently a graduate student in the Intelligence and International Security MA Program at the War Studies Department of KCL. Her research interests include processes of foreign policy-making, providing and analyzing information for decision-makers, as well as the role of women and non-governmental actors in conflict resolution and peace-building.