IT WON’T BE the first time that the PLA-Navy and its Russian counterpart conduct joint exercises. But it will be the first time they do so in the Mediterranean Sea. And that sends both a certain and a provocative geopolitical signal to Brussels, London and Washington beyond.
The foreign ministry has confirmed that two Chinese frigates and a supply ship will be among the nine warships involved in the exercises, which, Beijing says, will focus on actions where the two powers are likely to coordinate such as maritime resupply, rescue missions and escort duties. No damp squibs, the exercises will include live-fire practices.
The three Chinese vessels have been on anti-piracy duty off the Somali coast and were used in March to evacuate some 500 hundred Chinese citizens from Yemen.
There are no international high seas in the Mediterranean. All of it falls into the economic zone claimed by at least one of the some two dozen countries in it or bordering it. However, Chinese warships are no recent strangers to the waters. They evacuated more than 30,000 Chinese workers stranded in Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011. Since then, a PLA-N frigate has twice been involved in the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.
The timing of the exercises is pointed. They will come shortly after President Xi Jinping visits Moscow on May 8th-10th. While there, he will attend the May 9th military parade to mark the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which Russia celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. NATO and other Western leaders are boycotting the event in protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine. Xi will be fêted as the honoured guest.
A contingent of PLA troops will march in the parade. The message is that both NATO and Asian nations should regard the China-Russia alliance as a growing counterweight on land and sea to the one between the United States and Japan. Beijing sees Washington’s pivot of its foreign and defence policy towards Asia as intended to hem in China.
Beyond the geopolitical posturing, there is substance to the growing reach of the PLA-N. Beijing has increasing national interests far from home, including in the Maghreb and more broadly the Middle East and East Africa. The PLA-N’s capacity to project blue-water power far from home is still meagre, but it is being built up systematically—now in the balmy waters of the Med as much as in the shipyards at home.