How many warships does it take to remove chemical weapons from Syria? One more this week than it took last week, apparently. If you’re a big, important country with a big, important navy, you want to be involved in the good-citizenship exercise in Syria.
A 31 December deadline for getting some of the chemical stockpile to waiting ships in Latakia was missed, as readers will remember. But it looks like that will give China a late-arriving opportunity to join in the maritime leg of the effort, by providing a warship to escort the Norwegian and Danish ships transporting the chemical cargo.
On 1 January, Defense News correspondent Chris Cavas tweeted that Chinese frigate Yancheng, which had deployed 30 November for antipiracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden, was headed northward through the Suez Canal. (Interestingly, according to Chinese reporting, Yancheng had participated with her sister ship, the frigate Luoyang, in a live-fire exercise in the Gulf of Aden, the day before her Suez transit. Quite feasible, but a reminder that today’s People’s Liberation Army Navy is well capable of a relatively high “optempo,” or operational tempo – at least in waters where it has now spent five straight years gaining far-flung, at-sea experience.)
The official PLAN notification of Yancheng’s task was made public the next day (2 January). And on Saturday, 4 January, Yancheng arrived in Limassol, Cyprus for a port visit ahead of her escort duties. Chinese nationals in Cyprus turned out to give the frigate a big welcome.
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The other nation providing a warship escort for the transport of Syrian chemical weapons is Russia. The materials will be moved to Italy, where M/V Cape Ray (T-AKR-9679), operated by the U.S. Maritime Administration and the Military Sealift Command, will take custody of them for destruction.
The warship escorts are overkill, of course. The warships being provided by Norway and Denmark are more than enough, and there is zero likelihood of a piratical attempt on the chemical convoy between Syria and Italy. All the danger in transport is confined to the war-ravaged territory of Syria. (If there are unanticipated maritime-transport problems, the convoy’s transit path will be within reach of Turkish, Greek, and Italian rescue assets the entire way. Regardless of what the warship escorts do, it’s the rescue assets that will have to respond if there are mechanical failures or maritime accidents.)
Participating in this transit as an additional escort is a show-the-flag operation. Hey, nothing wrong with that. Except that the underlying political structure and intentions of the two providing nations, Russia and China, are nothing like the good-citizen, peace-on-the-seas posture of the Pax-era United States, Norway, or Denmark. Russia’s and China’s influence on the high seas are not politically interchangeable with those of NATO or the British Commonwealth navies.
The multilateral organization of the antipiracy effort off Somalia, combined with the recession of the U.S. Navy from its Pax-era posture overseas, has been setting us up for this shift for half a decade now. (I wrote about this in 2009 and 2010, and specifically about the first visits by operational Chinese naval task forces to the Mediterranean, in an article in 2012.) Navies are one of the best ways to expand your overseas influence: not just to “be there,” but to put down markers, drive stakes, signify national interest.
That’s what Russia and China are doing, and their interest goes far beyond Syria. They are in a competition to establish themselves as power brokers in the Eastern Mediterranean, which, as I have noted before, functions as the world’s “Great Crossroads.” Every global interest intersects there, and no one’s interest goes unaffected by what happens there.
Prescient observers back in early September, seeing the likelihood of Chinese interest in the possibilities of the Syria situation, ran with uncorroborated blog speculation that a Chinese warship had moved into the Eastern Med, during Obama’s lead-from-behind episode with the “red line” on Syria.* Although I don’t assess that a Chinese warship ever entered the Med back at that time, I do concur with the other observers’ overall expectations. At some point, depending on how the situation developed, China was likely to want a representative naval presence in it. With the neatly packaged, Nobel-ready “resolution” stumbled on by John Kerry, the Syria situation gained an overlay of orderliness that China could participate in, without having to be overextended, or unduly exposed to surprise.
The day will come when China doesn’t perceive a need for such favorable conditions for her far-flung naval ventures. Meanwhile, nations never change their naval orders of battle or operating profiles because they are satisfied with the status quo. Today’s conditions have similarities to the periods before both world wars of the last century: as before World War I, the sense of a comprehensive break with the past, overlaid with a sort of brittle complacency; and as before World War II, the sense of foreboding, a gathering storm, and unfinished business.
Both periods saw a significant increase in maritime posturing and naval activity by the anti-status quo powers. Such activity often looks limited at the time, and seems to be easily explained by narrow, contingent purposes. But in hindsight, it was always a signal of something bigger and more dangerous. Neither Russia nor China has made a global-citizenship move by volunteering for the Syrian chemical convoy. There’s no high school principal setting the rules now; this isn’t a student-council community project. The post-Pax Americana power game is on.
* Regarding the specifics about the movements of Chinese amphibious ship Jinggangshan, routine Chinese reporting about where she was during the period in question reflected her operating in the Gulf of Aden (GOA). The original report that Jinggangshan was off Syria, from a Russian opinion blog, was picked up by Western bloggers on 5 September. The ship was in the GOA on 28 August; was scheduled for convoy escorts through the GOA between 3 September and 30 September; and was in the GOA on 11 September.
There have been no reports that Jinggangshan went through the Suez Canal at all during her deployment with China’s 15th naval task force, whereas all other Suez Canal transits by Chinese warships have been reported on. Note: Jinggangshan and her sister ship, the frigate Hengshui, departed station in December, when the 16th task force with frigates Yancheng and Luoyang arrived in the GOA. The 15th naval task force completed a port visit in Tanzania on 1 January.