Despite the global economic and humanitarian impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing feud between the United States and Iran continued to simmer in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman. At the same time, amid growing strategic rivalry for regional influence between the world’s two largest economies, Washington and Beijing have maintained a robust operational pace in the South China Sea. Likewise, even though COVID-19 has altered some of its tactical and operational aspects, European efforts continued to deter, prevent, and repress piracy both in the Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Guinea. Nevertheless, these events do not represent an exhaustive list since other coercive and influence-oriented activities by naval means to fulfill foreign policy-related goals took place in 2020, also prompting further debate in the short run.
As the liberal international order went increasingly weak, following the absence of the United States under Trump and the United Kingdom’s protracted divorce from the European Union, France seemed to pick up the baton to address collective challenges in the region. In fact, it has become more embroiled in conflicts with an extremely ambitious Turkey across the Mediterranean, which has gone beyond its persistent harassment to any ship involved in gas exploration and oil drilling in disputed waters below the cease-fire line in Cyprus.
In June, after Greece and Egypt sealed a rival economic exclusive zone (EEZ) delimitation agreement of their own aimed at countering Turkey’s pact with Libya in 2019, a Turkish vessel allegedly targeted the French frigate Courbet 3 times with her fire control radar while the Marine Nationale unit was taking part in SEA GUARDIAN, enforcing a United Nations arms embargo on Libya. As a result, Macron withdrew France from the NATO operation. A similar incident was reported by the Hellenic Navy during Operation EUNAVFOR MED IRINI off Libya after being warned not to board a Tanzanian-flagged merchant ship as it was under protection of the Turkish Republic. Later on, Turkey sent the Oruç Reis surveying vessel escorted by its navy to explore off the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Greece responded by scrambling its own navy. Amid the standoff, after the Elli-class frigate Limnos and the MEKO 200 Kemal Reis collided, Macron deployed a La Fayette-class frigate and the Tonnerre LHD to exercise with Greek naval forces even in the area near Crete prohibited by a Turkish NAVTEX to allow the work of the Oruç Reis.
All these encounters at sea have taken place amid a naval race in the Mediterranean. As part of Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland) —expression for Ankara’s maritime claims in this strategically-important and resource-rich body of water—, Turkey is operating the first wave of MILGEM vessels and it is due to receive the TCG Anadolu, while France kicked off its Porte Avion Nouvelle Generation (next-generation aircraft carrier) program to produce a replacement for the Charles de Gaulle around 2038. In addition, Greece’s parliament recently approved several programs to upgrade the Hellenic Navy, including further modernizing systems on the Hydra-class frigates. Egypt has not fall behind under al Sisi and it has procured from France 2 Mistral-class LHDs, 4 Gowind-class corvettes and a FREMM Aquitaine-class multi-purpose frigate.
Certainly, the higher presence of ships in the area will nonetheless increase the possibility of incidents. In this context, the Egyptian and French naval forces have been carrying out several joint maritime exercises in the Mediterranean. Most recently, for the first time France and the United Arab Emirates participated in the MEDUSA exercises alongside Greece, Cyprus and Egypt.
At the same time, moves towards a European vision of the Indo-Pacific gain pace. This has its parallel in the United Kingdom amid concerns over China’s behavior towards the “one country, two systems” framework once agreed for Hong Kong, as it announced it will send an aircraft carrier to Asia in 2021 after Boris Johnson committed the British government to a massive $32-billion military expansion. Being a resident power thanks to its overseas territories, France is also expected to send a carrier or other forces to the region before long because of the potential dangers that China’s rise and the Sino-American rivalry pose to the country’s interests, influence, and status—as well as a desire to prevent possible marginalization given the supposed shift in gravity towards Asia.
Other moves to counter China’s ambitions include India, as it invited Australia to join the United States and Japan in the annual trilateral MALABAR exercises in the Indian Ocean, marking the first military drill between all 4 members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Eastwards, following Japan’s conversion of its 2 Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to field F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, the Republic of Korea Navy is building a light carrier to field F-35Bs. South Korea is somewhat smaller in size and economic footprint than France—the only country other than the United States that has maintained a first-rate naval aviation capability since the end of World War II. Beyond the threat posed by the existence and hostility of North Korea, with both Japan and China building aircraft carriers, and with the United States no longer a reliable partner, the decision to pursue carriers has a clear strategic logic beyond prestige.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the largest navy in the world with a battle force of approximately 350 platforms, including major surface combatants, submarines, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships and fleet auxiliaries. This year it made progress on the Type 003 aircraft carrier, a departure from the Soviet-style carriers currently in its inventory. In October, the 35th escort squad of the PLAN comprising a Type 052D guided-missile destroyer, a Type 054A frigate and the supply ship Chaohu returned home after travelling over 100,000 nautical miles during its 170-day voyage without reaching a port for rest, setting a new record for the PLAN for continuous operation time at sea. The pace of building new warships combined with a growing far seas presence should raise concerns both in the South Pacific and South Atlantic coastal states of South America, after years of repeated incursions in their EEZs by the massive Chinese-flagged fishing fleet. It is only a matter of time until the Chinese Communist Party decides to deploy a task force to protect its interests in those latitudes. Therefore, regional cooperation remains crucial but other efforts need to be made since neither naval power nor the ability to succeed in combat can be achieved overnight. Countries like Ecuador should not entirely rely on alms as they will need much more than 2 South Korean decommissioned HAEURI-class to fight the Chinese threat.
Though far behind the United States and China in the global naval race, let us not forget about Russia. While its ambitioned naval presence in Cyprus is being persistently boycotted by the United States, in a recent deal Sudan agreed to a 25-year lease that will allow Russian naval vessels to make port calls, replenishment, and light repairs at a designated area within Port Sudan. On the other hand, while a Russian surge of Arctic activity reflects the economic significance of the region and the impact of shifting climate patterns that now offer the prospect of an extended Russian maritime frontier, 3 US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers were joined by the Royal Navy’s HMS Kent in May to assert freedom of navigation across the Barents Sea. Until then, the United States’ surface fleet has had a decades-long absence from the Arctic even though its submarines remained active in the region conducting exercises like ICEX. Most recently, the USS Thomas Hudner destroyer joined the Canadian-led exercise Operation NANOOK.
How would naval forces around the world react to the challenges of 2021? The answer will rely heavily on Joe Biden’s foreign policy. He said the United States must seek to maintain its superiority amid a “return to great power competition” with China and Russia, but he is wary of unilateral efforts, emphasizing the importance of diplomacy and working through alliances and global institutions such as NATO—“the single most important military alliance in the history of the world”. Whatever happens, it seems the major role of navies as instruments of foreign policy will remain intact.