A Dangerous Flashpoint: EU Is Concerned Over China’s Assertiveness in Disputed South China Sea

Written by | Monday, December 6th, 2021

China’s assertive actions in South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan Strait ‘undermine’ peace and security in the region, the European Union and the United States have warned on Thursday (2 December). The allies have also expressed “strong concern” over what they said were China’s “problematic and unilateral actions” in disputed seas in the Asia Pacific, saying they would work together to manage their rivalry with Beijing. A joint statement following a high-level meeting between top EU and US diplomats warned China’s actions in the South China Sea, East China Seas and Taiwan Strait “undermine peace and security in the region and have a direct impact on the security and prosperity of both the United States and European Union.”
China claims almost the entire South China Sea despite an international court ruling that rejected its historical claim. The country has been developing artificial islands and military outposts in the waters backed up by its Coast Guard and its so-called maritime militia. China’s assertive posture has led to confrontations with other countries that claim the sea, most recently in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone at Second Thomas Shoal. Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of the sea, and US vessels have been carrying out so-called “freedom of navigation” transits in the area, which is one of the world’s most important trading routes.
During the talks in Washington, EU and US officials said since China’s activities “undermined peace and security in the region,” it was important to maintain close contact to manage the “competition and systemic rivalry” with Beijing. The briefing also discussed the repression of China’s Uyghur and Tibetan ethnic minorities, and the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic political system. Herve Blejean, director general of the EU military staff, said there could be greater EU-US coordination to “express our strong desire to defend international law at sea against de facto policies that we’ve seen in the South China Sea.” He also suggested that the EU could consider establishing a “Maritime Area of Interest” in the disputed region, similar to a pilot project aimed at better coordinating the EU presence in the Gulf of Guinea, part of the Atlantic Ocean.
“The South China Sea should be of concern to Europe,” argues Jonas Parello-Plesner, who is executive director of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Copenhagen, and senior non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC. He writes that when several Chinese coastguard vessels recently blocked Philippine supply ships en route to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, the French and German ambassadors to the Philippines issued Twitter-protests, but more should be done. What is at stake is the future of maritime multilateralism. Unfortunately, right now the South China Sea maritime disputes are perceived by most Europeans as either (too) far away or as part of a complicated power game between China and the US which it is best to stay out of.
According to Parello-Plesner, that complacent thinking in Europe overlooks that the South China Sea will be a make-or-break for global maritime multilateralism; one of the EU’s bedrock pillars. This is a perfect area for showing European Strategic autonomy in practice on the multilateral Law of the Sea. If China is allowed unimpeded to break the law of the sea in the South China Sea, think about the repercussions elsewhere. It could ricochet into Europe’s High North. In the Arctic, Nordic nations have overlapping claims with Russia which have so far been handed in for legal settlement. It wouldn’t be the first time, where the authoritarian duopoly inspires each other. That would be a world order, nobody wants.

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