The United States and China in the Mediterranean: New Great Power Conflicts in an Ancient World

As the Trump administration came into power after 2016, the United States found itself increasingly in conflict with Beijing on a variety of issues in the international system, ranging from trade, security in the Eastern-Pacific, intellectual property theft and economic competition. A confrontation that became even more pronounced as China came to be held responsible for a new version of the plague with the development of the COVID-19 virus. The confrontation between Beijing and Washington had implications for the Mediterranean world, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. For the first time in regional history, a faraway nation had entered the great power game in the area. Historically, the Eastern Mediterranean had seen Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States after World War II in competing for power and influence. At no time however, had an Asian power been involved.

In the first part of the 21st century, what became increasingly important was the role of China and its systematic policy of creating an economic network through maritime and land routes between the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Thus by 2020, Beijing’s increasing presence in the Mediterranean was characterized among other developments by commercial control of the Piraeus harbor in Greece, Haifa in Israel, and an interest in Trieste, in Northeastern Italy on the Adriatic. The presence of new Chinese immigrant communities in Italy boosted China’s evermore interest in what China called the “Belt and Road Initiative”(1).

In the Mediterranean, China had an ever growing presence in Algeria. Indicative of this presence was the construction of Djamaa El Djazair or the Great Mosque of Algiers by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation. It was the largest mosque in Africa and the third largest in the world, bigger even than the Great Mosque of Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque of Medina.(2) By 2019, Italy was the first major European country to join the “Belt and Road Initiative” (3), a move that was met with criticism from both Washington and the European Union.

The power and influence of China was such that, considering European moral and ethical concerns about conflicts in Africa and immigration from the Islamic and African world and continuous statements on diversity, tolerance, and religious freedoms, there was very scant interest in the persecution of Islamic national minorities in China, especially the Uighur Turkic national minority in Sinkiang western China.(4)

By 2020, the Trump Administration’s commercial, political, military and territorial objections to China’s international behavior (5) was another confirmation of what in the 1990s been called the Clash of Civilizations, or rather a great power conflict that certainly in the Mediterranean was not a new chapter in its long history. There was a new actor in the Mediterranean and all littoral states had to adjust accordingly.

In May of that year, the Secretary of State of the United States Mike Pompeo made a visit to Jerusalem that made ever clearer that Israel was the closest ally of Washington in the Middle East, as Trump pushed his Middle Eastern Peace plan to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the same time, Washington made it clear that the presence of China in the area economically, strategically and politically was not welcome. In the previous decade, Israel had allowed China to enter the Israeli technical and economic world. Chinese firms for example, were involved in building a metro system and were set to participate in the construction of a desalinization plant. American objections to the Chinese presence of a G5 advance phone network system in Israel were taken into account by Jerusalem. The US convinced Israel to avoid Chinese involvement with the construction of the phone system as it potentially allowed China to spy on Israel and its political, and military intelligence alliance of the United States.(6)

The COVID-19, Coronavirus, or Chinese virus of 2020, highlighted an ever increasing Sino-American confrontation worldwide with challenging implications for the strategic configuration of power in the Mediterranean interesting enough, for classical theories in International Relations ranging from the balance of power to hegemonic competition to clashes of civilizations.

(1) See Morgan Stanley post on March 14th, 2018,
(2) See Youtube video post March 12th, 2017,
(3) See CNBC post by Holly Ellyatt on March 27th, 2019, and-road-initiative.html.
(4) See Haaretz post by Davis Stavrou on October 17th, 2019, news/.premium.MAGAZINE-a-million-people-are-jailed-at-china-s-gulags-i-escaped-here-s-what-goes-on-inside- 1.7994216.
(5) See Fox News post by Liam Quinn on October 30th, 2019, communist-china-beijing-challenges-head-on.
(6) See Jerusalem post on May 23rd, 2020, relations-with-china-are-creating-a-storm-629076. Also see Times of Israel post on May 26th, 2020,