In a destabilizing region, the hits will come from all sides. Egyptian authorities are confirming reports that terrorists with RPGs attacked a Panamanian-flagged cargo ship (Chinese-chartered) in the Suez Canal on 31 August (video here). Not unnaturally, the insurance market is reacting sharply.
This is as good a time as any to deal with two reports floating in the infosphere. One is that China has moved warships off the coast of Syria, an allegation sourced to a Russian website, Telegrafist.org.
Chinese warships? Telegrafist is an opinion blog, not a news site. Its tone is not sensationalist; it comes across as sincere and well-intentioned, and its editorial posture can perhaps best be discerned by English readers through the observation that it features some of the work of Brandon Smith, whose Alt Market website can be reviewed here. (Not quite Alex Jones and InfoWars: more introspection, no scare-graphics in primary colors.)
Some bloggers at Telegrafist are as convinced as some Americans that global “elites” have been planning a smack-down centered on Syria for years. So, as to the specific reporting in the article “China sent ships of the PLA Navy to the coast of Syria”: it’s not impossible, but I doubt it.
There are two basic data points. One is a statement that Chinese warships are already off the coast of Syria, with the source of this information being given as a Chinese military blog, which claims to have sources inside the People’s Liberation Army. No link is provided for the original report on this.
The other data point is from a forum at which a member posted an anonymous report from a mariner that Chinese amphibious dock ship Jinggangshan (pennant number 999) was seen in the Red Sea, apparently heading north, on an unspecified but presumably recent date.
Regarding this latter data point, I assume it’s valid. Jinggangshan is deployed for antipiracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, a maritime contingency which has been serving as cover for China to put amphibious shipping in this area for some time now. (Amphibious ships are unsuited to the antipiracy operating profile, but China keeps deploying them. The hold of an amphibious dock transport ship can carry a lot.)
Chinese warships on antipiracy patrol have visited ports in Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Egypt, and Oman, as well as making swings through the Mediterranean on an occasional basis since 2010. It’s still noteworthy when Chinese warships go through the Suez Canal, however, and there has been no reporting of a transit in 2013. If Chinese warships were off the coast of Syria right now, I would expect to find reports that they had gone through the Canal. (A Mediterranean circuit may be planned for the ships of the current antipiracy task force, which would explain Chinese military sources disclosing that PLAN ships will be going to the Med. There’s just no evidence that it has already happened this year.)
China has no reason to put herself in the middle of a Syria crisis anyway. She has enough to do elsewhere. Beijing has joined forces with Moscow to defend a common political principle by blocking UN action against Syria, but that doesn’t mean China has common interests with Russia in Syria. Bashar al-Assad is Putin’s problem. China isn’t trying to avoid selling anyone bullets; she may well be doing so; but she certainly has no intention of getting in the way of bullets herself off the coast of Syria, if they start to fly.
Suez Canal and NATO warships. The report has circulated that Egypt may deny use of the Canal to NATO warships, based on a call by the influential Tamarod movement for Egypt’s interim government to do that. Even responsible opinion media have taken time to speculate on the possibility that Egypt might close the canal, or threaten to, as a means of extracting aid from Western nations.
Egypt won’t close the Canal for either reason. Besides the Canal’s economic importance – which is only the greater when Egypt’s general economic outlook is poor, as it is today – the Egyptians administer the Canal under the terms of the Constantinople Convention of 1888. They made the commitment to honor its provisions when the Canal was taken over and nationalized in 1956, and for the most part have done so. Except for the Canal closure after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Egypt attacked Israel and subsequently lost the Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptians have administered the Canal neutrally as a matter of national policy, strategy, and pride. The Constantinople Convention admits of virtually no pretexts for excluding other nations’ warships from passage.
Nor would any diplomatically conventional nation pressure Egypt to enforce such an exclusion (e.g., against Iran or North Korea). The nations are agreed that no such precedent ought to be set; it could come back to haunt anyone if it were. Certainly, as long as General Al-Sisi is behind the government of Egypt, the Egyptians will take no irresponsible actions regarding the Canal.