The Baltic is a European inland sea at the margin of the world’s main shipping routes. Its only ocean access is via the Skagerrak, the Kattegat and the Oresund, a 510-kilometer narrows that winds between Denmark, Sweden and Norway before opening onto the North Sea – also not one of the world’s chief maritime thoroughfares.
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However, the Baltic has always been important to Russia, which has its own problems with access to the oceans. Lately, the strategic importance of this body of water has increased due to the strained relations between Russia and the NATO countries.
These tensions have become apparent in bellicose rhetoric and military concentrations at both ends of the Baltic Sea and especially along the eastern borders of Central Europe, which run from the Baltic states down to the Black Sea.
This strip of territory where Russia and the NATO countries border on each other can be considered dangerous but geographically limited.
That impression changed this week.
On July 24, three Chinese warships – including an advanced Type 052D missile destroyer – joined the Russian navy for exercises off the heavily armed exclave of Kaliningrad.
The Baltic Sea is an unlikely place to find a Chinese task force. Indeed, this is the first time in history that a warship from China has shown its flag in this remote body of water. But the more important question is what its presence signifies.
China is challenging the American claim to global hegemony. It is striving to show it should be treated at least on equal footing with the United States.
As the pace of China’s naval buildup accelerates, its global reach is also widening – especially into the Indian Ocean. But Beijing has also been sending warships to the Mediterranean for the past two years, and with this month’s opening of a permanent naval base in Djibouti, it has the capacity to sustain a presence there as well.
Much as China feels hemmed in to the east by U.S. naval power, so Russia sees a threat from the west by NATO
Much as China feels hemmed in to the east by U.S. naval power, so Russia claims to be threatened from the west by NATO’s presence in the Baltic states and Central Europe.
In the past, Beijing saw no connection between these geopolitical facts, nor any strategic interest in the Baltic Sea. But with its participation in the Russian naval drill off Kaliningrad, China is now manifesting its support for the Russian position.
With the development of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Central Europe has become of great interest to China as the terminus of vast new overland trade routes. Coincidentally, this new grand strategy also strengthens Russia’s position.
Signs are accumulating of an emerging marriage of convenience between Russia and China. The two countries have already held joint naval exercises in the past, in East Asia and the Mediterranean.
The latest operation in the Baltic may be rather modest in scope, but its symbolism is powerful and should not be neglected.