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Noah Feldman

What Is China's Navy Doing in Mediterranean?

A show of force that also protects Chinese business in the Middle East.
A show of power.

A show of power.

Photographer: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images

Why is China announcing joint naval exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean, so far from home? There’s a global answer connected to the new cool war and China’s interest in responding to U.S. initiatives in the Pacific. But there’s also a more revealing local answer arriving from the nature of China’s growing involvement in the Middle East and North Africa.

The global geopolitical explanation for the exercises, expected this month, is certainly interesting and distinctive. China’s military and security aims are primarily focused on the Pacific, and it can’t reasonably hope to compete with the U.S. or European powers in their own backyards. Yet China gains symbolic value from presenting itself as an increasingly global power. A naval exercise in the Mediterranean -- even one on a very small scale -- is the kind of thing great powers do. The announcement is therefore useful to communicate China’s seriousness and commitment to this rise. It may be even more valuable within China, where President Xi Jinping is nurturing an increasingly nationalist strain of pride under the slogan of the “Chinese dream.”