For the first time, as announced on October 16, European Union military forces have completed a combined exercise with the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). While European Union Naval Force (EU NAVFOR) interactions with the PLAN in the Gulf of Aden are not entirely new, this exercise indicates an unprecedented level of coordination between European and Chinese naval forces. Set in the current geopolitical context, this new development merits attention for activity not only in the Gulf of Aden, but also in the Mediterranean Sea.
Since January 2009, both EU NAVFOR and the PLAN have continuously deployed ships to counter piracy and protect vulnerable shipping off the coast of Somalia. EU NAVFOR Atalanta, the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) military operation flying under the EU flag, operates in conjunction with the multinational Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 – which Singapore currently commands – and NATO Operation Ocean Shield. The PLAN operation is independent from CTF-151, and its geographical scope also differs slightly from other navies operating in the region. Whereas EU NAVFOR MED has a broader geographical mandate to operate off the Horn of Africa and in the Western Indian Ocean, Chinese Naval Escort Taskforce (CNET) is concentrated in the Gulf of Aden.
To date, coordination between CNET and EU NAVFOR (via CTF-151) has been a mixed bag, and joint efforts to increase coordination with China have met limited success or are ad hoc at best. The PLAN has conducted convoy escort operations through the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), the recommended transit route where concentrated forces patrol to facilitate safe passage for all – including Chinese – vessels and which is a core constituent of the newer Maritime Safety Transit Corridor (MSTC). Yet China has rejected previous requests to participate in joint collective command of the IRTC.
A similar pattern can be seen in interactions between the navies. While CNET and CTF-151 forces have crossed decks in 2009, 2013, and 2018, little information about the regularity of other exchanges, nominally information exchanges, is available. It is notable that the PLAN has previously made use of MERCURY, the EU common information sharing system to coordinate between navies in real time, yet reports suggest that this has been underwhelming.
A Gesture of Goodwill
That said, recent activity may portend more regular interactions, if not cooperation, on the horizon. In some ways, the recently completed EU NAVFOR-PLAN combined exercise, which consisted of Chinese military medical personnel boarding an Italian helicopter and an evacuation to the PLAN outpost, was uneventful. On the proverbial spectrum of maritime security-task sophistication, medical evacuation lies on the lower end. Consistent with Chinese insistence that its resupply and logistics base in Djibouti aims at readiness for peacekeeping and humanitarian missions, this low-stakes foray appears as cooperative within the regional security architecture at best or harmless at worst.
In what can be considered a gesture of good will, the combined exercise also has a more meaningful symbolic side. Engaging in this combined exercise indicates a China at growing ease with its Far-Seas presence. As such this combined exercise, which appears otherwise routine, has a unique flavor. While EU NAVFOR has deep cooperative experience in the framework of CTF-151 and NATO Operation Ocean Shield and with other navies in the region like India, this form of cooperation beyond Pacific waters is unusual for China.
One of the more unique features of this combined exercise is the fact that EU NAVFOR personnel have been invited into the PLAN resupply base. Leading up to the combined exercise, EU NAVFOR’s Operational Commander visited the PLAN base on August 8, 2018. During the combined exercise, an Italian helicopter from Atalanta landed within the parameters of the Chinese supply base in Djibouti. Reported instances of western militaries entering onto the Chinese base in Djibouti are extremely rare, if not unprecedented, and most views of the base are limited to aerial imagery.
From Djibouti Northward
Any upward momentum cannot be analyzed without taking into account the Chinese supply and logistics base in Djibouti announced in 2015 and opened in 2017. In tune with the CNET deployments from December 2008 being the first blue-water, long-distance Chinese operation, the base in Djibouti became the first overseas Chinese military outpost. To downplay the extent to which the outpost displays more global militarized ambitions, Chinese officials have consistently referred to it as an outpost or logistics facility rather than a full-fledged military base. Nomenclature aside, the military deployments and base illustrate the strategic relevance of Africa and trade corridors to a global China.
The other geopolitical dimension that ties in with newfound interactions between EU NAVFOR and the PLAN is the proximity of Chinese naval forces to the Mediterranean Sea. Not only is the Mediterranean Sea in the EU neighborhood, but it is also home to the second EU naval operation, EU NAVFOR MED Operation Sophia. Operation Sophia aims to combat people smuggling in the Southern Central Mediterranean. Established in 2015 in response to the migration crisis, Operation Sophia is another example of EU NAVFOR cooperating with other forces such as NATO – although the actors are not nearly as numerous as those around the Gulf of Aden.
Facilitated by almost a decade of experience in Far-Sea naval operations and, since 2017, resupply capabilities from its logistics facility in Djibouti, flying the Chinese flag in the Mediterranean has become tangible. In tandem with Chinese business interests and increasing stakes in Mediterranean ports, the strategic relevance of the Mediterranean Sea to Chinese ambitions has also crystallized.
The earliest notable Chinese presence in the Mediterranean Sea came in 2011, when PLAN and commercial vessels evacuated more than 36,000 Chinese workers from Libya in the lead-up to NATO airstrikes. Such evacuations are vital to China, particularly given the number of foreign workers and overseas investments to protect in the region. The following year a PLAN escort fleet ventured into the Mediterranean while reportedly sailing from the Suez Canal toward Ukraine.
It was in May 2015 that Chinese presence in the Mediterranean experienced an up-tick. Russia and China brought their joint drills, previously conducted further afar, to the Mediterranean Sea. With the participating PLAN ships coming from the Gulf of Aden, the joint drills focused on “navigation safety, at-sea replenishment, escort missions and live-fire exercises.” The summer of 2017 saw more live-fire drills from a PLAN frigate and destroyer conducted live-fire drills in the Mediterranean.
Chinese connections to Mediterranean ports are also a crucial connection for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Earlier this year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) control 10 percent of European port capacity. In addition to naval visits to European ports (although not necessarily via/in the Mediterranean) and PLAN ships more frequently seen in the Mediterranean, Chinese stakes in a variety of ports may be looked at as evidence of a String-of-Pearls strategy, particularly given Chinese SOE stakes in ports in Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Morocco.
As suggested by analyst Noah Feldman in 2015, the PLAN may experience “mission creep” whereby, symbolically, if Chinese strategic objectives in the Mediterranean do not evolve beyond evacuation and rescue missions, it may symbolize weakness. Beyond protecting business interests and specific cooperative activities with Russia, other foretastes of Chinese confidence operating in this region, can be seen in the maritime domain.
Today, a more holistic strategic perspective on Chinese presence in and around the Mediterranean should also take surveillance into account. The proximity to a U.S. naval base, Camp Lemonnier, has raised suspicion that China’s support base in Djibouti will also double as an intelligence outpost. This sentiment has been echoed with regards to Chinese-controlled ports around the Mediterranean. For instance Israeli analysts, particularly given its small size of the country, have brought up the possibility of China collecting intelligence on Israeli warships from the Haifa and Ashdod ports, both of which are managed by Chinese firms.
While it is highly unlikely to see PLAN warships cooperating with EU NAVFOR Sophia, the increasing Chinese presence in the Mediterranean makes it easier – if not inevitable – to envisage necessary eventual coordination in more crowded Mediterranean waters. As such, the significance of the combined medical evacuation exercise in the Gulf of Aden should be seen as more than a gesture of good will. It is attestation of Beijing’s growing comfort with sustaining a Far-Seas military presence and a way to test the waters for more action in and around Europe’s neighborhood.
Zoe Stanley-Lockman is an Associate Research Fellow in the Maritime Security Programme of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).