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What is the Future of Europe’s Involvement in the South China Sea?

Photo Credit: Erik De Castro, Reuters ©. August 2023

Despite the EU’s growing engagement in the Indo-Pacific, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea are perceived by most Europeans as too distant and part of the long power game between China and the United States. Such complacent thinking neglects the huge systemic interests that Brussels has in the region and overlooks the fact that the South China Sea represents a make-or-break for global maritime multilateralism, and a crucial choke point for the global economy.

The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy aims to maintain a free, secure and open region for all while building strong and lasting partnerships through the promotion of democratic values and the reinforcement of a rules-based international order (EEAS, 2021; European Commission, 2021). The rule of law, a foundational principle shared by Member States and a pillar of the EU’s identity, has become a framing vector even for its external action and is seen as the best guarantee for peace. Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister of Defence, stated that “if the law of the sea is not observed in the China Seas today, it will be in jeopardy in the Arctic, the Mediterranean or elsewhere tomorrow. In order to keep the risk of conflict contained, we must defend the Law and defend ourselves with the Law” (Boisseau du Rocher, 2021).

However, a gap between aspirations and rhetoric, on one side, and actions, on the other, is perceived. In a region where the EU has many partners but few friends, Brussels should take effective steps to explore a multi-dimensional and innovative path that merges its economic power with its political influence, project development and capacity-building.

What is the EU trying to do in the South China Sea?

In its strategy, Brussels mentions a number of areas and issues to tackle (sustainable and inclusive prosperity, green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnerships, connectivity, security and defence, human security) but it does not exactly explain what it wants to do or in which capacity. The EU’s contribution can be realistically grouped in three areas: cooperation, capacity-building and coordination of its Member States’ assets.

The European Union is deeply involved in raising the cooperation with Indo-Pacific states and enhancing their capabilities in multiple dimensions. The project “Enhancing Security Cooperation in and with Asia” (ESIWA) aims to enhance practical cooperation, policy dialogue and capacity building, thus helping to create and deepen relations and increase awareness of the EU’s contribution to security in Asia (GIZ, 2022). ESIWA, launched as a pilot project in 2020, involves partners such as India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam on maritime defence, cybersecurity, peacekeeping, counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. Moreover, the EU is developing and expanding other supporting mechanisms, such as the CRIMARIO Project to enhance information sharing and strengthen cooperation in maritime investigations or the web-based Indo-Pacific Regional Information Sharing (IORIS) platform that enables Member States’ navies to communicate in real time (CRIMARIO, 2021; Robles, 2022).

European states’ assets have already proven useful tools to be operated in different areas to enhance the EU’s image, reliability, and partnership with regional actors. Such areas include digital economy, connectivity, green transition and sustainable development (EEAS, 2020a). France, Italy and Germany, for example, can provide advanced infrastructure solutions and expertise.

While bilateral cooperation is still important, multilateralism is both an objective and a means for EU stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific. An important focus of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy is dedicated to ASEAN, considered a “natural partner” and a cornerstone of the evolving security architecture in the region (EEAS, 2022). In 2020, the two international organisations signed a Strategic Partnership (EEAS, 2020b). Unlike the treaty-based and security-oriented US initiatives in the region, ASEAN sees the EU as a trustworthy partner in expanding its strategic space by diversifying its external partners (ASEAN Studies Centre, 2023). Indeed, the ASEAN–EU Plan of Action for 2023-2027 is broader and more ambitious than the previous one and details cooperation in areas such as pandemic recovery, sustainable trade, disaster preparedness and security cooperation (ASEAN, 2022). On the other side, economic relations could be upgraded to a higher profile and towards a multilateral framework (Bermingham, 2022).

The courage to go beyond rhetoric

However, with this in mind, how can the EU implement a successful strategy that is consistent with its capabilities and aspirations? A multi-layered regional approach that incorporates different areas of engagement while avoiding relying on any singular dimension of activity, particularly military and trade commitments, is needed.

Europe and the Indo-Pacific have a stake in each other’s security and shared interests in upholding a rules-based international order (EEAS, 2022). EU institutions should continue to strongly voice their legitimate concerns over the freedom and safety of navigation in the region, including in proximity to Taiwan (MERICS, 2022). The EU should reinforce its presence in the freedom of navigation operation patrols (FONOP), so far limited in number and resources. Brussels should continue to emphasise its initiatives, such as ESIWA, supporting the military and law-enforcement capabilities of countries in the region in order to deter unilateral attempts to change the status quo. In particular, Brussels should provide military equipment and training tailored to face maritime threats.

Europe should further deepen economic and technological relations to increase its influence and image and, more importantly, to secure supply chains (Duchatel and Kefferputz, 2022). For Indo-Pacific states, wider economic relations with EU members could make supply chains more diversified, better equipped to endure external shocks and less vulnerable to Chinese coercion. In terms of minerals, commodities, key technological components and electric appliances, Indo-Pacific states can actually be effective and reliable suppliers for the EU.

The EU’s real added value in this area resides in building inclusive multilateral initiatives and developing alternative and attractive offers. Such initiatives, some of which are already in progress, will strengthen supply chains through better data management and digital connectivity and, in terms of sharing logistics and technology, could represent a real breakthrough. Following the examples of Japan, India and Australia, the EU could also support joint projects in the automotive, electric and health care sectors (Kaneko, 2022). Providing economic and digital infrastructure is another of the EU’s strong points with deep expertise. Indeed, the EU’s Global Gateway project, which up to now appears to be nothing more than a communication exercise, could offer the opportunity to build high-quality connectivity infrastructure and could be seen as the European attempt to promote a model of connectivity that is socially, financially and environmentally sustainable (Bermingham and Nyabiage, 2022).

Systemic weaknesses and internal divisions

Nonetheless, a stronger engagement of the EU and its Member States in the South China Sea will continue to be thwarted by a number of additional factors. Firstly, Europeans’ threat perceptions differ markedly from those of the coastal states. Secondly, the dominant prism through which Europeans look at the South China Sea and the surrounding region is economic. Trade, investments, and commerce have so far taken priority over more strategic considerations. Moreover, many European states tend to view the region through the EU-China relation lenses neglecting the interests and viewpoints of Southeast Asian countries. Thirdly, the EU suffers today from the persistent and dangerous lack of a coherent China strategy. EU institutions’ and Member States’ approach has consisted for too long in expressing concerns on a steadily increasing number of issues involving China’s behaviour, while preserving trade ties and looking to cooperate with Beijing on a few areas perceived as unproblematic, such as climate change.

Importantly, Brussels lacks a defined role and credible leverages in a crisis scenario. Without a significant military power capability, the EU is trying to improve the defence cooperation in the region through deeper security dialogues, operational cooperation and capacity building (Expertise France, 2022). However, the biggest role European policymakers must play is to prevent a crisis from happening in the first place. The European Union’s priority must be to deter any side from unilaterally or forcibly changing the status quo by clearly signalling to all parts that such actions would entail more risks than benefits and that it would be too costly, economically and politically. The EU’s minimum common denominator in the South China Sea’s geopolitical considerations is to prevent the negative effects that global competition could have on the EU’s economic security for generations to come.

About the Author

Michael Malinconi has worked as Research Assistant Intern at Carnegie China and Elcano Royal Institute. He focuses on East Asia, with a particular interest in China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Malinconi holds a master’s degree in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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