Why Are Chinese and Russian Ships Prowling the Mediterranean?

There are good, simple reasons for the joint naval exercises in the waters off Europe. But Moscow and Beijing also ain’t above a little swagger.

MAY 15, 2015

On May 11, nine ships from the Russian Navy and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) kicked off 10 days of combined exercises in the Mediterranean Sea, for their first joint naval war games in European waters. What does this nautical confab, dubbed “Joint Sea 2015,” entail? “Maritime defense, maritime replenishment, escort actions, joint operations to safeguard navigation security as well as real weapon firing drill,” according to Sr. Col. Geng Yansheng, a spokesman for China’s Defense Ministry. The aim of the exercises is to “further deepen friendly and practical interaction between the two countries,” maintained the Russian Defense Ministry. Moscow added that the drills “are not aimed against any third country.”

Despite the soothing words, some Western commentators opined that Europe’s middle sea constitutes an “unlikely and provocative venue” for this venture. Yes, Moscow and Beijing chose the venue precisely to be provocative — the exercise is a throwback to Soviet maneuvers in the Mediterranean 40 years ago. It was predictable that an allied fleet would eventually put in an appearance off NATO’s southern, nautical flank.

Does a Sino-Russian naval presence off NATO seaboards sound frightening to you? It shouldn’t — there’s nothing new nor especially worrisome here. It represents normalcy in a world of geostrategic competition — the kind of world that’s making a comeback following a quarter-century of seaborne U.S. hegemony. The United States wants to preserve its primacy, along with the liberal maritime order over which it has presided since the end of World War II. Challengers such as China and Russia want to amend that system while carving out their own places in the sun of great naval power. Irreconcilable differences over purposes and power beget open-ended strategic competition.

Hence deployments like Joint Sea 2015. Yes, exercises have functional uses like those outlined by Geng. But navies can also shape global and national opinion by constructing impressive warships, aircraft, and armaments. Showmanship plays a part when commanders display gee-whiz hardware to important audiences. Mariners impress by showing up in far-flung regions in sizable numbers, and by handling their ships and planes with skill and panache. And a seafaring state creates an even bigger sensation if its fleet deploys in concert with allies, backing their common cause with steel. Competitors, like China and the United States, can one-up one another through peacetime maneuvers — bucking up morale among allies and friends, helping court would-be partners, and disheartening rival alliances.

That’s the essence of great-power naval diplomacy, and it can pay off handsomely. The three-ship PLAN contingent — guided-missile frigates Linyi and Weifang, accompanied by fleet oiler Weishanhu — are taking a break from counterpiracy duty in the Gulf of Aden for Joint Sea 2015. The PLAN flotilla wended its way from the western Indian Ocean into the Red Sea, through the Eastern Mediterranean, and into the Black Sea. It tarried at the Russian seaport of Novorossiysk for Victory Day commemorations before exiting back into the Mediterranean in company with Russian Black Sea Fleet ships.

The interoperability challenge
Why go to the time, expense, and bother of assembling a fleet in European waters — so far from East Asia, the natural theater for Sino-Russian escapades? Let’s start with the obvious motive, and the official one. Russia and China are doubtless sincere about harvesting the dividends that come from steaming around together and practicing routine operations. Both navies need to learn, and they can learn from each other. China is constructing its first world-class navy since the15th century. Russia is recovering from the dreary post-Cold War years when ships rusted at their moorings and sailors went unpaid. Both countries’ sea services are now trying to put things right following protracted intervals of decay — a lapse of centuries in China’s case, decades in Russia’s. So where does this newfound strength come from? Materiel — reliable, technologically sophisticated hardware and weaponry — and the proficiency of its users. Maneuvers like Joint Sea 2015 help the navies improve along both the material and human axes.

In material terms, the Russian and Chinese navies need to bolster their equipment “interoperability” — their capacity to back up the Sino-Russian partnership’s policies efficiently and effectively. Call it a form of multinational gunboat diplomacy. Armed services order their kit from defense manufacturers. Such firms may — or, more likely, may not — build their products to a common standard. Their wares are far from interchangeable. Dissimilar hardware makes it hard to work together, even for armed forces flying the same national flag. To take a workaday example: think about trying to use tools designed for English and metric measurements together.

Such widgets just don’t fit — or at least not without workarounds. It’s just not easy to fight together when two air forces use different airframes, communicate or exchange data on different frequencies, or sport different weaponry with unlike characteristics. Procuring hardware from multiple suppliers in multiple countries exacerbates the interoperability challenge.

Take India, for example. Asia’s other rising military power importsships, aircraft, and weapons from firms in Russia, France, and the United States while also manufacturing its own naval armaments. At present, the Indian Navy operates British- and Soviet-built aircraft carriers, while in the future it will operate a Soviet-built aircraft carrier alongside indigenously built flattops. Diesel submarines of French, German, Russian, and Indian design; a nuclear-powered attack sub leased from Russia; an Indian-built nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine; and a Russian-built nuclear-powered cruise-missile sub will constitute the undersea fleet. U.S.-built maritime patrol aircraft will fly for the same naval air force as MiG fighters imported from Russia. You get the point: this is a virtual Tower of Babel of armed forces. Getting such disparate platforms to work together has proved troublesome for India, to say the least.

Interoperability, then, is the process of devising procedures or material fixes to make incompatible machinery compatible. Yes, the PLAN and Russian Navy have a fair amount of equipment in common: China imported Soviet-built weaponry to help kick start its naval renaissance in the 1990s. But at the same time, Chinese industry started building ships, planes, and armaments with zest — even as Russia fields newfangled hardware of its own. Consequently, the navies are drifting apart in compatibility terms. Interoperability is on the decline. Exercises help restore it. (Moscow is reportedly mulling a purchase of Chinese frigates like the Linyi and Weifang; reciprocal arms sales help narrow the gap as well.)

Eating soup together
Then there’s the human factor. Ameliorating equipment interoperability challenges is well and good, but the finest implement is no better than its user. Napoleon once quipped that soldiers have to eat soup together for a long time before they can fight as a unit. Same goes for seamen. Armed forces are teams: Their members have to learn common tactics, techniques, and procedures. And they have to practice tactics and routine operations, over and over again. Repetition is the soul of combat effectiveness.

Crewmen also need get to know one another, acquainting themselves with their shipmates’ strengths, weaknesses, and foibles. Strangers seldom collaborate smoothly in the hothouse environment of combat. That’s doubly true in alliances, where linguistic barriers, disparate histories and cultures, and countless other impediments work against military efficiency. Seafarers learn by doing: if you want to work well together, then work together early and often. Eat soup together — and refine seamanship, tactical acumen, and élan in the bargain.

That’s the tactical and strategic logic behind Joint Sea 2015 — if we take Moscow’s and Beijing’s words at face value. But are there ulterior motives impelling this Mediterranean adventure?

Of course. For one, it’s a reply to the U.S. pivot to Asia. As Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu explained in November when announcing a slate of Sino-Russian undertakings, including Joint Sea 2015, the two partners are worried about “attempts to strengthen [U.S.] military and political clout” in the Asia-Pacific.

That’s a worrisome trend from their standpoint. The U.S. Navy has mounted a standing presence in China’s and Russia’s near seas since World War II, manifest in the Japan-based Seventh Fleet. It’s augmenting that presence as it rebalances to the Far East. By staging a show of force in the Mediterranean, to NATO’s immediate south, Moscow and Beijing proclaim, sotto voce, that what’s good for the U.S. Navy is good for the Russian Navy and PLAN.

Learning from the best
But there’s more to the Mediterranean expedition than jabbing NATO in the eye. Contesting control of Eurasian waters is sound strategy backed up by history. During World War II, Yale professor Nicholas Spykman ascribed the age of British maritime supremacy to the Royal Navy’s control of the “girdle of marginal seas” ringing Eurasia’s coastlines. He called the South China Sea — the site of territorial disputes among China and several other nations — the “Asiatic Mediterranean.” Seagoing forces could flit around the periphery quickly and economically relative to land transport — radiating power and influence into the Eurasian rimlands from the sea. Mobility and seaborne firepower let Britannia rule. By cruising the Mediterranean Sea, the Russian and Chinese fleets project power into European waters – much as the Royal Navy projected power into Asian waters via the South China Sea and other littoral expanses. The logic works both ways.

To Chinese and Russian eyes, surrendering control of offshore waters to the U.S. Navy looks like surrendering control to the Royal Navy and fellow imperial powers a century ago. Historical memory is especially acute for China, which lost control of its seaboard and internal waterways to waterborne conquerors. But Russia endured traumas of its own: It watched the Imperial Japanese Navy demolish the Russian Navy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. China and Russia hope to banish such memories while turning Spykman’s logic of nautical supremacy to their advantage. If successful, they’ll stiff-arm the United States in Asia while projecting power into NATO waters.

Vying for control of these seas puts important Eurasian audiences — prospective allies, prospective foes, fence-sitters — on notice that China and Russia are sea powers to be reckoned with. And on a global level, Joint Sea 2015 could be a forerunner to bigger things. In 1970, for example, the Soviet Navy executed a deployment titled Okean (ocean), which stunned Western navies through its geographical scale and the sheer number of assets deployed. Indeed, some 200 Soviet warships and hundreds of aircraft took to the Baltic Sea, Norwegian Sea, North Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific.

It was an armada, mounting a presence across an enormous swathe of the world’s oceans and seas. Soviet ships weren’t just plentiful in numbers but youthful, generally under 20-years-old. Okean made it plain that the Soviet Navy was outbuilding its Western rivals at a time when the United States was in a funk over the Vietnam War and the U.S. Navy was under strain. The exercise made the statement that the Soviet Navy was a serious contender for mastery of the seas. It could defend Warsaw Pact shores while competing against the U.S. Navy on the vasty main.

However gratifying for Moscow, though, such capers set the law of unintended consequences in motion. By the 1980s, the Soviet naval rise jolted the United States into a naval buildup of its own — a buildup that empowered the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to reassert their supremacy in Eurasian waters while setting the stage for the United States’ post-Cold War preeminence. In short, Moscow’s propaganda coup backfired badly: it goaded Washington into action, prompting the Carter and Reagan administrations to fashion a new, offensive-minded maritime strategy prosecuted by a nearly 600-ship navy. That’s what strategists call self-defeating behavior. So be careful what you wish for, Russia and China.