Tensions continue to rise over the past weeks as Turkey’s maritime doctrine sheds light on its territorial claims in the disputed waters of the Mediterranean, “Mavi Vatan”. The actions that follow indicate further observation to this recent development is necessary, not just for stakeholders in the region, but also for the international community at large.

Harun Ayanoglu, Taiwan Center for Security Studies

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The tension in the Eastern Mediterranean (EastMed) increased following the exploration of gas fields and Turkey’s recent maritime doctrine, Blue Homeland, referring to territorial waters, continental shelves, and EEZs as part of its motherland. As part of this doctrine, Ankara has constantly been declaring NAVTEX (Navigational Telex) to inform Greece and other states near designated gas exploration areas in the EastMed, and despite the EU’s protests, Turkey deployed research/survey vessels and drillships escorted with frigates, corvettes as well as drones. Moreover, EastMed has become home to numerous large-scale naval drills launched by Turkey; and other coastal states as a response to Turkish naval activities. Similar to the eastern flank of Asia, the western waters of the continent are heated as well. 

The Blue Homeland, which has been praised domestically, has come with a cost of unanimous bloc against Turkey in the region. It has forced Greece, Israel, Egypt, Italy, France, UAE, and Jordan to unite and solve their decades-old maritime disputes. The formation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which aims to empower the regional energy market, with Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, and Jordan (also the US and the EU as permanent observers) alienated Turkey even more, as it is excluded from the Forum.

Egypt-Turkey Rapprochement?

The eight-year-long disruptions in the relations between Turkey and Egypt may come to an end since the statements from both sides are to be promising for the future. “A new chapter can be opened; a new page can be turned” said Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman of the President, the day after an Egyptian intelligence officer’s statement (on March 12) that Cairo welcomes Turkey’s meeting request in Cairo based on economic, political, and diplomatic cooperation.

In the wake of the military coup in Egypt in 2013, which ousted the Ikhwan government, Ankara strongly condemned the new government. However, recent statements from both sides are promising for peace and stability in the EastMed and other issue areas between two countries, such as the civil wars in Libya and Syria. President of Turkey, Erdogan also confirmed the need to reset the relationships with Egypt.

In the EastMed, Egypt upheld the so-called anti-Turkey bloc by signing agreements on EEZ with Italy and Greece, respectively, on June 9, 2020, and August 7, 2020, which later Turkey announced that these agreements considered legally null and void, as these designated EEZs fall in the area of Turkey’s continental shelf as well as violate Libya’s maritime rights and Libya-Turkey maritime deal.

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Despite the relatively positive developments in relations, according to Egyptian officials, for normalization, Egypt expects Turkey to stop questioning president Sisi’s legitimacy, stop supporting Ikhwan and stop harboring them in Turkey, also to respect international rule of law in maritime disputes and not involve themselves in Arab countries’ domestic affairs. Nevertheless, it is prudent to foresee that Erdogan would not give up easily on these issue areas, as his domestic political and ideological priorities would not allow him to do so. According to some commentators, Erdogan cannot officially renounce his attitude towards Sisi and Ikhwan. Instead, his “anti-Sisi” stance slowly fades away.

However, there is no other way before Turkey to normalize relations with Egypt. Ankara’s attempts to denounce and alienate the Sisi government failed; on the contrary, it resulted in Turkey’s alienation, especially in the EastMed. Moreover, the cost of relying on hard power in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and the EastMed is getting higher and higher for Turkey. Hence, to breach the “anti-Turkey bloc” in the EastMed, any agreement with Cairo would be welcomed by Ankara.

On the flipside, Greece is not content with any ice-breaking improvements in relations between Egypt and Turkey. Thus, Athens attempted to reinforce bilateral ties with Egypt. High-level visits to Cairo following the recent developments proved this point.

In sum, bringing peace and stability to the EastMed requires all parties to compromise. Egypt, Greece, and specifically Turkey have attempted to make use of high tension in maritime delimitation disputes to reinforce their popular support in domestic politics. One can assume that this is the “Cold War of Attrition”.

As it relates to the maritime disputes in the China Seas, where the dynamics at play despite being excessively different in nature—the tussle in the Mediterranean is between regional powers, whereas regional powers have to confront a superpower in South China Sea—could shed some light on state’s behavior in pushing an agenda that infringes upon the rights of others. For instance, the coast guard law passed by Beijing earlier this year prompted Japan to respond proportionally. As it stands now, regional dynamics in East Asia has reacted to the crossing of “red lines” by the Chinese, arguably strengthening alliances and fanning domestic anti-Chinese sentiment. 

The ongoing maritime woes that are playing out in the Eastern Mediterranean are as heated as it is on the other side of the Eurasian continent. Thus, drawing attention and shedding light to the lessons learned from both may perhaps prove invaluable to maritime-watchers and security professionals from both Europe and Asia.