September 16, 2021

A Limited Partnership

Russia-China Relations in the Mediterranean

By Jim Townsend, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, David Shullman and Gibbs McKinley

Executive Summary

The last several years have seen a worrisome increase in tensions in the Mediterranean involving age-old rivals such as Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus, as well as increased involvement from newer players like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and China, or returning players in the case of Russia. Many analysts have noted an increase in power struggles between some of these actors in the region. It is against this backdrop of competition that observers have questioned whether the Mediterranean will become a new arena for increased collaboration between China and Russia. In the last several years, the two countries have increased their presence and influence in the Mediterranean, creating opportunities for growing cooperation at odds with U.S. interests and objectives in the region.

As the authors have argued in previous CNAS research, the increasing depth of Russia and China’s partnership creates challenges for U.S. interests and increases the risk that both countries pose to the United States. For this reason, the United States should not write off Russia-China relations as just an uncomfortable or unnatural partnership. But nor should Washington seek to counter their cooperation in every dimension of their partnership or compete intensely in every region. The alignment between Russia and China presents a comprehensive challenge; addressing it will require policymakers to prioritize and address their cooperation in the areas likely to pose the greatest threats to U.S. interests, and conversely, avoid focusing on areas of lesser concern. The Mediterranean is a region where U.S. policymakers should not overstate the potential for Russia-China cooperation, nor the significance of the implications of their partnership.

As Russia and China have increased their activities in the Mediterranean, they have done so largely through parallel and complementary efforts, rather than explicit cooperation. Russia and China share an interest in dividing the European Union and NATO and increasing their own image and influence in the region, especially at the expense of the United States’ influence. However, the Mediterranean is not a priority for Russia or China; the two countries have divergent priorities in the region, and they pursue these priorities differently, limiting the common ground for active engagement between them. Russia has prioritized its security presence and relationships, while Beijing is focused on advancing its economic interests.

The Mediterranean is a region where U.S. policymakers should not overstate the potential for Russia-China cooperation, nor the significance of the implications of their partnership.

Russia and China, therefore, represent two different sets of challenges in the
Mediterranean—Russia largely as a security challenge whose destabilizing actions unsettle the region, and China primarily as an economic one. The implications of their efforts in the Mediterranean are best considered individually rather than as stemming from their cooperation. Still, the alignment of their actions has the potential to erode U.S influence in the Mediterranean to a greater extent than either of them would be able to do on their own.

The primary implications of Russia-China alignment in the Mediterranean include:

Crowding out U.S. regional influence. Increased Chinese economic engagement and Russian security involvement in the region are combining to decrease the real influence and relevance of the United States for Mediterranean countries focused on economic growth and preventing instability. As more countries in the region turn to China for investment in infrastructure, view China as their main trading partner, and seek greater access to the Chinese market, political and business elites could become increasingly beholden to China economically. Russia’s intervention in Syria and support of the Assad regime has challenged the United States’ and Europe’s long-held claim to the position of primary security partner in the region. Although Russia lacks the capacity to become the dominant military power in the region, its relationships with Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, and Libya help burnish Russia’s great-power credentials in the eyes of some states.

Exacerbating challenges to democracy and human rights. Reduced reliance on the United States and democratic partners in Europe, combined with the confluence of Russian and Chinese messaging on the failings of democracy and support for illiberal actors, will exacerbate authoritarian trends in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa and further weaken bonds to the democratic West. Russia and China’s growing role in the region allows leaders to credibly threaten to move closer to Moscow and Beijing to dilute U.S. requirements for good governance, democracy, and other reforms. The corruption that comes from doing business with Russia and China, and that some of the elite seek out for personal or political gain, also weakens democracy.

Enhancing Russian and Chinese military capabilities. Military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing allows China to improve its operational capacity outside the Pacific area. This does not mean that the two countries will become interoperable, but that they will be better able to operate together should they need to in case of conflict.

Amplifying the perceived decline of the United States’ regional relevance. Russia and China are keen to portray the United States as a declining power. Both are working to depict the United States as disengaged in the Mediterranean region, amplifying perceptions of the United States’ relative decline as a regional player. However untrue this message is, the confluence of Russian and Chinese efforts increases the dose of the messaging and amplifies regional perceptions of U.S. decline beyond what either country could manage on its own.

Russia and China, therefore, represent two different sets of challenges in the Mediterranean—Russia largely as a security challenge whose destabilizing actions unsettle the region, and China primarily as an economic one.

Looking forward, U.S. policymakers should monitor Russia-China cooperation in the Mediterranean and avoid overstating the significance of their engagement in the region, which could distract focus and resources away from other priorities. To address Russia-China cooperation in the Mediterranean, the United States and its allies should approach them as two distinct challenges: Russia a security one and China an economic one. The goal of such an approach should be to prevent Russia from becoming the preferred security partner and from expanding its influence out of the Eastern Mediterranean westward. The United States and its allies and partners also should work to prevent China from becoming the long-term dominant economic partner, resulting in mounting political leverage across the region. Still, the U.S. and Europe can take steps to mitigate the effects of Russia-China cooperation, especially reasserting U.S. leadership and increasing economic investment and diplomacy in the Mediterranean region.

Introduction

The Mediterranean has been at the center of global geopolitical competition for influence and resources for much of history. That is no less true today. The United States has a vested interest in supporting its allies and partners and, after an extended hiatus following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has renewed its efforts to extend influence into the region. While Moscow’s increasing presence in the region (especially its 2015 intervention in Syria) is often described as an effort to reassert the Kremlin as a global power and indispensable player in the region, the Kremlin also sees its actions there as “part of a broader standoff with the West that stretches from the Atlantic to the Black Sea and from North Africa to the Arctic.” From the Russian-occupied naval facilities in Sevastopol in Crimea across the Black Sea, through the Turkish Straits, and into the Eastern Mediterranean and thence to Libya, where Russia supported Libyan General Khalifa Haftar's faction battling for control there, Russia is back in the Mediterranean.

In addition to Russia, the struggle for Mediterranean influence has been joined by a new player: China. While Beijing does not typically conceive of the region as a single entity—more often addressing strategies toward sub-regions such as southern Europe or North Africa—China does have several key interests in the Mediterranean. These include advancing its strategic economic interests, garnering greater influence in a region of significant geopolitical importance, and expanding the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) reach and operational capacity.

As Russia and China increase their presence and influence in the Mediterranean, it creates opportunities for growing cooperation between them and is at odds with U.S. interests and objectives in the region. Indeed, policymakers and analysts alike are more attuned to the risks posed by the alignment between Russia and China. The United States and its allies and partners must navigate the challenges stemming from Russia-China cooperation, including those in the Mediterranean—the focus of this policy brief. Previous Center for a New American Security (CNAS) research highlights the risks that greater Russia-China cooperation presents for the United States and its democratic allies and partners. This research argues that the growing cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is amplifying the challenges that both actors pose. As the two countries’ cooperation increases, they create a more potent force working against the United States and its interests, goals, and values. However, there are clear limits to the depth of their cooperation. While the Mediterranean likely will not be a major source of friction between the two countries, it is also unlikely to be an arena for deep or sustained cooperation. The Mediterranean is not a priority for Russia or China; the two countries have divergent priorities in the region, and they pursue those priorities differently. U.S. policymakers, therefore, should monitor Russia-China cooperation in the Mediterranean and avoid overstating the significance of their engagement in the region, which could distract focus and resources away from other priorities

This brief first provides background on the current state of Russia-China cooperation in the Mediterranean, summarizing their respective interests and lines of action, and identifies the drivers and limits to their alignment in the region. Although a formal alliance is unlikely, some of China and Russia’s interests are indeed aligned in the Mediterranean. Both countries share a desire to erode U.S. and European Union (EU) influence and a preference to deal with individual European states rather than the EU as a whole. Russia and China also both benefit from military cooperation, conducting bilateral exercises that improve the operational capacity of the Chinese navy (PLAN) and strengthen their ability to operate together. This brief also examines the ways in which Russia and China’s aligning interests could be most damaging to U.S. security and foreign policy interests and identifies recommendations for ways the United States and its allies and partners should address the cooperation between the two countries in the region.

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  1. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “Navigat-ing the Deepening Russia-China Partnership,” (CNAS, January 2021), https://s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS-Report-Russia-China-Align-ment-final-v2.pdf?mtime=20210114133035&focal=none.
  2. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, An Emerging China-Russia Axis? Implications for the United States in an Era of Strategic Competition, March 21, 2019, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/March%2021,%202019%20Hearing%20Transcript.pdf.
  3. Paul Stronski, “A Difficult Balancing Act: Russia’s Role in the Eastern Mediterranean,” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2021), https://carnegieendow-ment.org/files/Stronski_RussiaEastMed_final1.pdf.

Authors

  • Jim Townsend

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    James Joye Townsend Jr. is an adjunct senior fellow in the CNAS Transatlantic Security Program. After eight years as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for European ...

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

    Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

    Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She works on national security ch...

  • David Shullman

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    David O. Shullman is Senior Advisor at the International Republican Institute, where he oversees IRI’s work addressing the influence of China and other autocracies on democrat...

  • Gibbs McKinley

    Former Intern, Transatlantic Security Program

    Gibbs McKinley is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Before joining CNAS, Gibbs intern...

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