Naval News: Reds in the Med — Geopolitics tends to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to lands which are not submerged at high tide and to the people who govern them – even though three quarters of the world’s surface is underwater. That’s understandable: the seas do not have press offices, news media, ministries of foreign affairs, nor much in the way of historians who can record their version of the facts.
Still, oceans are the connective tissue holding the globe together. Something like 90% of all international commerce involves moving freight by ship. The post-war “pax americana” has depended to a great degree on the extraordinary domination of the seas by the U.S. Navy, whose aircraft carriers and atomic submarines have gone substantially unchallenged, even in the hottest moments of the Cold War.
Due to the incredibly high cost and the lengthy development and construction cycles, the overall balance of naval power tends toward stability over time. Now though an important new element has emerged. In the second half of May the Russian and Chinese navies conducted joint “live fire” exercises – they shot at things together – in the Eastern Mediterranean.
For the Russian, this was a sort of return to the kind of show-the-flag maritime patrolling typical of the Cold War era. For the Chinese People’s Republic instead it was completely unprecedented. Beijing had never sent a formation of combat-ready warships so far from home.
The presence of Chinese warships in the Mediterranean is highly unusual. The last instance in living memory was that of a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigate which appeared off the Libyan coast after the fall of of Colonel Gaddafi to cover the evacuation of Chinese nationals from the zone. This time, of the ten warships participating in the Mediterranean maneuvers, four were Chinese – two modern Jiangkai II class missile frigates, the Linya e la Weifang, together with two support ships.
From the strictly military point of view, the operation was not all that significant. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese possess aircraft carriers able to operate under combat conditions; their respective fleets are smallish and not especially advanced in technological terms. They do not cause shivers to run up and down American spines.
On the other hand, the two countries lead the world in the growth of their military budgets. Between 2007 and 2014 Chinese military spending grew 167% and the Russian figure roughly doubled – all while the American military investment fell slightly.
Seen in absolute vales, the picture is considerably different. In 2014 the US spent $610 billion, the Chinese $215 billion and the Russians $84.5 billion – not much more than Saudi Arabia’s $80.8 billion, but still real money.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Chinese troops marched in Moscow’s traditional “May Day” military parade in Red Square this year – and that formations of Russian soldiers will be present at the similar parade in Beijing in September to commemorate, together with their Chinese brothers, the end of the Second World War.
They seem to be doing quite a lot of marching together in fact.