Libya Exposes Fault Lines in the Mediterranean – Part I

Europe and the West, enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, anticipate a quick end to the conflict. With the tenacity of the pro-Gaddafi forces, that assumption may prove to be misplaced. The crisis reveals a range of security vulnerabilities affecting the Mediterranean and beyond. In the first article of this YaleGlobal series, China specialist François Godement notes how the need to evacuate thousands of citizens from Libya has highlighted the rising capabilities of India’s and China’s navies. Navies from emerging economies demonstrate ability to intervene quickly in the Mediterranean with greater force than Europeans might use in Asia. Godement questions Europe’s neglect of defense preparedness and internal bickering: Mixed messages – arguments over intervention versus diplomacy and cost-cutting – weaken European influence in specific conflicts, including Arab uprisings and immigration control, and broader international security matters. Agreement on when the use of force is appropriate eludes the global powers, leading to internal and cross-border debates as conflict rages. – YaleGlobal

Libya Exposes Fault Lines in the Mediterranean – Part I

As China and India demonstrate military preparedness, Europe dithers
François Godement
Friday, March 25, 2011

PARIS: In months to come, the Libyan crisis will be analyzed for its significance in the era of Arab uprisings. One consequence is already apparent: Libya’s humanitarian emergency suddenly highlighted the power projection capabilities of leading Asian navies and raises questions about the wisdom of a retiring military role for Europe. In the context of the Libyan experience, the European Union must find a way to reconcile its security concerns with budgetary austerity.

Since the launch of the Operation Odyssey Dawn to establish a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya with US and British nuclear submarines and Europe’s only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, the differing approaches of NATO allies have burst into the open.

In particular, debate immediately emerged in Europe regarding the very principle of deployment of force. On 25 February, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton had said: “the EU…cannot deploy gunboats or bombers….The strength of the EU lies, paradoxically, in its inability to throw its weight around. Its influence flows from the fact that it is disinterested…. It can be an honest broker – but backed up by diplomacy, aid and great expertise.”

Her stance, along with Germany’s unexpected abstention at the UN and skepticism towards the intervention, raises the specter of a disarmed Europe opposed by France and the United Kingdom. But the UK faces a severe budget emergency, and the French president is currently short of political capital to sustain the risks of a protracted conflict. Italy has come down on both sides of the issue: As the continental European country with the nearest border and with the stronger economic ties, it fears the impact of chaos from Libya. Surprisingly to many, Spain’s Zapatero has resoundly backed the action. Tiny Cyprus was predictably opposed to any action. Turkey, initially very reluctant, has engaged ships under NATO. It has taken time to establish a NATO line of command, needed for practical reasons, but the French in particular wanted to retain political initiative.

Beyond immediate events, the crisis highlights ongoing trends for naval power projection. Asia’s capacity to project forces into the Mediterranean are now larger than what would be Europe’s potential in case of a crisis in, say, southeast or northeast Asia. Europeans cooperate within their complicated defense arrangements, within NATO and bilaterally with the US – a multilayered process now open to debate.

But cooperation also serves to promote deep defense cuts for most, if not all, European nations. Asian nations clearly act individually and without any coordination – the model of mutual suspicion that applies to Gulf of Aden operations has been carried over to the Libyan emergency. Whether one views this as a preference for sovereignty over other concerns or as a rising strategic competition, the fact is that these events serve to justify budget increases, particularly for Asian navies. India’s defense budget increase of 12.5 percent in 2011 literally mirrors China’s 12.7 percent rise.

The Libyan crisis, which has exposed citizens of China and India to the vagaries of war, may add justification to these countries’ naval buildup. Since the Libyan crisis erupted with more than 200,000 foreign workers thrown out, the arrival of a Chinese warship in the Mediterranean made global news. The Chinese destroyer sailed from the Indian Ocean, where it had been conducting anti-piracy operations.

In the past, the People’s Liberation Army’s naval ships have paid calls to Mediterranean ports, but this was the first instance of an actual operational deployment. In the end, the arrival turned out to be more a show of flag than actual rescue. For the evacuation of its 38,000 nationals, China relied primarily on ferry ships leased from Greece and an airlift by civilian planes, as prominently reported in Chinese media. The evacuations served as the primary narrative about the Libyan crisis for Chinese audiences. 

Less conspicuous in the news was an Indian deployment of two modern military platforms – a destroyer and a helicopter carrier – to rescue some 18,000 nationals. India, which had already sent ships to evacuate nationals from Lebanon in a previous crisis, was less creative and apparently had less clout with the Gaddafi government than China does: The only permission to land was given to Air India flights, in insufficient number at that. China’s recourse to Greece – where it has acquired godfather status after contributing to rescue of the Greek economy – proved efficient. Indian Navy ships started from Mumbai and needed 12 days to arrive on location. Korea also diverted a destroyer from the Indian Ocean, but mainly relied on chartered ships from Greece, air flights and Turkish Navy assistance. Meanwhile Bangladeshi workers – said to number about 18,000 – wait it out at the Egyptian border, relying on humanitarian assistance. 

India’s naval capacities are understated internationally, in part because they’re viewed as less challenging to the status quo and because the United States predominates over blue waters. But even factoring in an Indian preference for low profile, China’s debate over its maritime projection is eye-catching. 

Europe and China are literally moving in opposite directions. Even when Chinese experts recognize that naval power is no longer the source of global dominance, as it was in the days of Alfred Mahan, they still see a use for hard power. Mostly, they express confidence that the US could never impose a successful naval blockade against China, given the extraordinary numbers of commercial ships plying the Pacific and South China Sea. Their vision is, at a minimum, one of China providing naval assets to ensure open passage through maritime straits.

China’s naval buildup has been consistent for more than a decade. Experts now argue that China will not only need ports of call, but logistical bases over its extended maritime routes. Its anti-piracy operation has been hampered by their absence – and one can also say that there is now a competition with India to establish a footing in the Western Indian Ocean.

Thus, as the EU leadership prepares a transition from a receding European naval capacity to a soft power relying on commercial interdependence and goodwill for protection, China is the last “great nation” to expand its blue-water navy, in the grand geopolitical tradition started in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the two must be on the right course, and the other has to be wrong. After the rise of irritants between China and its Asian neighbors on the issue of maritime borders and freedom of navigation, some Chinese experts question the wisdom of taking the high road on naval development. At the very least, this fuels unprecedented alarm in India, Korea and also Japan, as well as an accelerating trend of expenses. 

How the Libyan operation ends will influence the European public’s attitude towards military involvement away from their shores. The arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants from North Africa and the reaction of a substantial minority of North Africans throughout the EU may also shape security attitudes. Europeans must decide if the push by UK’s David Cameron and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy for naval and air interventions over Libya is a last hurrah to empires long gone – or realistic anticipation of what comes next in great power competition and peaceful development on the Southern Mediterranean rim.  


François Godement is senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. This article draws on material published in the China Analysis, an e-bulletin of the Asia Centre and the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization