What future for the Eastern Mediterranean?

By George N. Tzogopoulos
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, September 27, 2020
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The Turkish drilling vessel Yavuz is seen at a port in Kocaeli province, Turkey, on June 20, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

A few weeks ago, Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, and a State Councilor, paid a highly important visit to Greece. This was part of an international trip, including stops in Myanmar and Spain. 

While in the Greek capital of Athens, Yang met with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In parallel with their emphasis on the importance of the Sino-Greek partnership, they also discussed another worrying international issue: instability in the Eastern Mediterranean caused by a Greek-Turkish standoff on undelimited waters of the basin, south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo. 

China, holding a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, cannot but be highly interested. This is what Yang reiterated in his public remarks. 

He talked about the importance of peace and stability as well as the need of involved parties to solve their differences via dialogue and avoid actions tending towards an escalation of tensions. This is also the position of the other four members of the Security Council, the U.S., France, Russia and the U.K. 

On the whole, the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean is very complicated indeed. Greece and Turkey have disagreed for decades over the delimitation of their continental shelves. 

At the same time, Cyprus remains a serious international problem unresolved following the 1974 military invasion of Turkey in the northern part of the island. More importantly, civil wars in Libya and Syria do not allow additional cooperation while tensions between Israel and Lebanon as well as Israel and the Palestinians add to the complexity. 

U.S.-Russian rivalry is being played out among several obscure regional spats in the same part of the Mediterranean Basin.

Comparing all these thorns, an arrangement of an undelimited maritime area looks like the easiest task. It would require some political compromises among littoral states – with the temporary exception of Libya and Syria due to civil wars. 

The reality is much harder though. Cyprus has come to relevant agreements with Egypt, Israel and Lebanon. However, Turkey does not recognize Cyprus, and has also attempted to benefit by exploring the possibility of hydrocarbons extraction in waters legally belonging to the exclusive economic zone of the latter. 

In November 2019, Turkey and the Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya signed a memorandum of understanding on maritime zones that was followed by another deal agreed between Greece and Egypt in August 2020. Some zones covered in the two accords do intersect.  

During Yang's visit in Athens, a Turkish vessel Oruc Reis was conducting seismographic research in areas of the Eastern Mediterranean, which were not delimited in these two memoranda of understanding, but where both countries claim rights. 

Greece has signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and says all islands, including Kastellorizo, should have rights to a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone. 

Turkey has not signed this Convention and asserts it has the longest coastline in the region and should not be excluded. A military incident between the two countries seemed a possibility recently as Greek and Turkish military units did sail close to each other around the Oruc Reis. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel mediated in seeking a reduction of tensions. The Oruc Reis returned to a Turkish port in Antalya nine days after Yang's Athens visit but it remains unclear how long it might stay there. 

In the interim, Greece and Turkey seem prepared to engage themselves in some talks. However, their agendas are clashing, as the Greeks opt for bilateral dialogue and Turkey is pushing for multilateral negotiations to protect the rights of the Turkish Cypriot community. 

Cyprus does not accept all this and is endeavoring to persuade the EU to impose sanctions on Turkey. It has thus disagreed with the EU intention to simply impose sanctions on Belarus as a warning signal. 

China needs to carefully monitor developments in the Eastern Mediterranean. The U.S. remains, obviously, present but lacks the appetite to play the role it used to in relevant crises of the past. Russia is prepared to intervene, if asked, and Germany looks for a foreign policy success with an eye to common economic prosperity. 

For its part, France has been involved in an unprecedented war of words with Turkey over aspects going beyond Greek-Turkish-Cypriot disputes and expand into Middle East and North African affairs. 

New dynamics in the basin hardly create optimism for better days to come.

George N. Tzogopoulos is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


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