Interviews | Diplomacy

China and the Mediterranean: Geostrategic Context and Contest

Insights from Barry Strauss.

Mercy A. Kuo
China and the Mediterranean: Geostrategic Context and Contest
Credit: Modification of NASA image by Eric Gaba

Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into Asia policy and politics. This conversation with Barry Strauss Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies and Chair of the History Department at Cornell University and author of myriad publications on classical history, including Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine (Simon & Schuster 2019)discusses the U.S.-China competition underway in the Mediterranean region.

What is the geostrategic relevance of the Mediterranean in current great power politics?

The Mediterranean is the crossroads of three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. Via the Suez Canal and the Straits of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean is the major maritime gateway between East and West. The route northeastward through the Hellespont adds Russia to the picture. Whoever controls the Mediterranean has access to the oil resources of the Persian Gulf, the rapidly growing economies of Africa, the military power of NATO, and the economic engine of the European Union. The Mediterranean is also the gateway to the dynamic, unsettled, and sometimes explosive regions of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Finally, oil and gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean, most recently off the island of Cyprus, are a subject of interest, controversy, and, potentially, of conflict.

Analyze the competing interests of China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey over resources and influence in the Mediterranean region.

China and Russia each employs a “soft underbelly strategy” in the Mediterranean. For China, investment in such relatively weak economies as Greece and Italy offers an entrée into the EU. For Russia, intervention in Syria offers prestige and the potential political leverage afforded by bases, allowing Russia in turn to exercise influence in other regional conflicts and thereby gain concessions from other powers (e.g., the U.S.). Iran under the Islamic Republic has expanded its geographical reach from the Arabian Peninsula to Syria, thereby pushing Persian power to its perhaps greatest peak since ancient times. By intervening in conflicts such as Libya and Palestine, Turkey is trying to rebuild some of its Ottoman-era power and influence. Meanwhile, it is trying to maintain a delicate balance between the U.S. and Russia while sending troops into Syria to weaken Kurdish potential opponents. Turkey is also keenly interested in the gas off Cyprus, the northern part of which Turkey made into a separate mini-state by armed intervention decades ago.

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Assess the concept of Thucydides Trap as a history-based trajectory for U.S.-China war.

The Thucydides Trap refers to a theory based on the origins of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), so brilliantly analyzed by Thucydides, as well as on other more recent case studies. According to Professor Graham Allison, the Peloponnesian War broke out because the growth of a rising power, Athens, caused so much fear in an established conservative power, Sparta, that war became inevitable. According to Allison’s research, this pattern has been repeated again and again over time. Unfortunately, in most such cases, the confrontation of a rising and conservative power is a recipe for war. Hence, the danger of war between the U.S. and China is considerable.

In fact, however, this is a misreading of Thucydides. The war was caused less by fear on the part of the conservative power, Sparta, than by a cold-blooded decision by the rising power, Athens, to go to war at a time when it believed it could win a quick and easy victory. As it turned out, the war was a disaster for Athens. Miscommunication and mutual suspicion and hostility were also factors in the coming of the war. Nor did Thucydides think the war was inevitable; he argued that Spartan emotionalism, not merely fear but alarm or terror, pushed it toward war without forcing it to fight. The lessons for the U.S. and China are that armed conflict between the two powers is a matter of concern but it is not inevitable. Both sides need to make the peaceful settlement of disputes to be their highest priority. By the same token, the United States needs to look to its defenses, both military and alliance-based, lest China think it could win an easy victory. The U.S. needs to ensure open and clear communications with China, so that misunderstandings can never lead the two countries toward conflict.

How do the Roman Caesars compare to today’s authoritarian leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin?

The most successful of the Roman emperors won the support of three key groups: the army, the senate, namely, the wealth and political elite, and the ordinary people, especially of the capital city. In a pinch, however, the Caesars would settle for the support of the army, although that proved to be an unstable base in the long run. Similarly, Putin and Xi know that their power rests on three pillars: the military, the leading civilian elites (be they oligarchs or apparatchiks), and popular support. Not even in China is it sufficient to rely on Mao’s dictum that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun — so it does, but only in the short term, not unless one wants to live in a garrison.

How will the Mediterranean impact key geopolitical developments in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe over the next decade and how should government and business leaders understand its implications?

As a crossroads and a chokepoint the Mediterranean is a natural cockpit of competition. For example, Cypriote gas resources might bring Turkey into conflict with other eastern Mediterranean states while also potentially drawing in China and Russia. Then there are the broader issues of migration, war, and development. The EU and other western European states live largely at peace, but war is very much a factor in the eastern and southern Mediterranean as well as on the borders of Russia. The long-term stability and prosperity of Europe – and, hence, of its relationship with Asia – depend on the smooth and steady integration of Africa and the Middle East into a modern, peaceful, and flourishing politico-economic regime. Success will require three things. Carrots, first: investment, education, trade deals, European acceptance of immigrants (at least a limited number), and political and military guidance in order to help move things forward. Then comes sticks: European and NATO militaries strong enough to intervene to help allies and to prevent extortion and terrorism on the part of bad actors. Likewise, a combination of carrots and sticks will be the best way to turn Russia into a satiated power. Finally, it will require patience, because these changes will take decades to complete. Ultimately, you can’t change societies without changing culture, and the pace of such change usually requires at least one if not several generations.