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China-Turkey relations and Cyprus’s Gas

Gas discoveries in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean have attracted worldwide attention and have led Western energy companies to develop the reservoirs
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he attends a national youth foundation event in Ankara, Turkey on February 1, 2018. (Yasin Bulbul/Pool Photo via AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he attends a national youth foundation event in Ankara, Turkey on February 1, 2018. (Yasin Bulbul/Pool Photo via AP)

At the beginning of February, the work of a gas search team of the Italian company ENI, which was on its way to search for gas about 80 kilometers from the coast of Cyprus, in an area known as Calypso or Block Six, was interrupted by the demand of Turkish warships to leave, They will. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Do not think that we are ignoring the opportunistic attempts to carry out gas exploration in the waters of Cyprus and the Aegean Sea.” “We warn those who cross the border from a mistaken calculation,” he said. The current intervention of Turkish forces emerged against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict over control of the island, a conflict that has continued since February 1974. That same month, Turkish forces occupied about a third of the island of Cyprus in an operation called “Attila”. Since then, Cyprus has been divided into two entities, one under Turkish control and the other internationally and the second recognized by the international institutions, a member of the European Union and close to the Greek leadership. Moreover, Erdogan’s threats were directed at a business company from Italy, but were intended to convey a clear message to other countries in the eastern Mediterranean basin, namely Cyprus and Greece, which in recent years have intensified cooperation and coordination between them, threatening Turkey’s place in the region.

The gas discoveries that began in 1999 in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean (the Cyprus Aphrodite reservoir, the Egyptian Zor, the Israeli Leviathan, etc.) attracted worldwide attention and led Western energy companies to develop the reservoirs. In Cyprus itself, the Honey Company is already working in cooperation with France’s Total and in the coming month Exxon Mobil will also start exploring Cyprus for gas. This situation also affects the conflict between the two parts of the island, since the discovery of gas on a large scale may turn the question of control of the island into a question with economic implications, and not only policy as it has been today.

In response to the Turkish intervention and the expected arrival of the American Exxon Mobility vessel, the Americans sent the USS Iwo Jima warship in order to maintain the freedom of action of Western energy companies. The Turks continued to reiterate their position since the incident in February, according to which they were sovereign and therefore they should coordinate with them in the region and that they were the only body authorized to handle the matter. Attempts to reach a dialogue between the parties, which had already begun several months ago, were not renewed, and the tension between the parties in Cyprus remained unchanged. The European Union, of which Cyprus is a member, also joined the fray, condemning the Turkish aggression.

China, which began to show its involvement in the region even if it did so in a declarative manner (for example, the four-stage proposal to resolve the conflict in Syria and a similar proposal for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), did not respond to recent developments in Cyprus, The subject of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s announcements. It seems that Chinese abstention is not accidental, and relations between Turkey and China are the key to avoidance. Relations between the two sides have warmed up in the past year, culminating in a declaration by Turkish Foreign Minister Belut Chabushulu of September 2017 that the Turkish government would prevent any publication that could be interpreted as anti-Chinese in the Turkish media, on the grounds that China’s security is linked to its security. The closeness between the sides could be the motive for the Chinese refrain from making statements on the issue and the Turkish self-confidence to threaten by means of warships on ships belonging to European companies.

The similarity between the nature of the conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean countries over the control of existing resources at sea is similar to the conflict among the countries bordering the South China Sea on exactly the same subject, a careful discussion of how to divide the deep-sea resources. This situation may allow China to indirectly demonstrate its policy on this issue. The Chinese want to create an international precedent according to which the decision on the distribution of resources at sea will not necessarily be according to international law, but based on determining the facts on the ground, we want the Turks to be the first to do so. The consistent increase in the Chinese defense budget, which accelerated this year (an increase of 8.1% in 2018, compared to a 7% increase in 2017), coupled with the great preoccupation with the development of weapons with an emphasis on weapons to the maritime arena, indicate the desire of the Chinese to demonstrate their military power in the naval arena. This military force can be used at any stage if their demands for control of the natural resources of the South China Sea are not fulfilled and are already used to threaten those who do not receive their permits.

The Turks led by Erdo─čan have abandoned their desire to be accepted into the European Union on the one hand and on the other want to strengthen relations with China and take a significant part in the Chinese initiative of the Belt and Road Initiative and therefore willing to take the first step in establishing facts on the ground, even if they contradict international law . Erdogan, who is working hard to strengthen his hold on Turkey, is not abandoning his ambitions to expand his sphere of influence, and only recently Turkey announced that it would establish a naval base on the island of Suakin, near Sudan. Erdogan’s attack against the Italian ships appeared to be part of the same aspiration.

The Chinese have nothing to lose from direct involvement in the conflict in Cyprus. The Chinese hold investments throughout the island, whose geographic location is important for the Chinese to expand and expand their maritime dominance. The fact that Cyprus is a member of the European Union prevents the Chinese from intervening directly, since Cyprus alongside Greece is a bridge and helps China in the conduct and development of relations with the EU countries and especially with the stronger countries that lead the EU. The fact that the eastern basin of the Mediterranean is gradually becoming an energetic center can also have an impact on China’s unwillingness to intervene directly. The Chinese need to diversify and expand their energy sources. Although other countries such as Qatar or Russia currently supply enough gas to China, they may be interested in additional gas as part of the Chinese industry’s move to use gas as part of the fight against severe air pollution in parts of the country. Even if the same gas is not used directly, further discoveries of gas reserves may affect the entire market, and China does not want to harm its chances of benefiting from these changes.

Above all, it will change the familiar Chinese policy of “non-interference” whereby China avoids directly interfering with other countries. Despite this policy, China’s prolonged military buildup requires it to relax this principle and it seems that the use of a third country may be the appropriate solution.

About the Author
Researcher and PhD student at the Middle Eastern studies department, Bar-Ilan University.
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