Regional tensions and the unclear role of the United States in the South and East China Seas both affect security interests of the European Union. The EU’s dependence on the security in the South and East China Seas is directly linked to China’s increasing economic and diplomatic influence in and around Europe. Beijing is very likely to leverage that influence since it wants to keep the EU from getting involved in the region, which would possibly harm China’s strategic interests.
China has boosted its influence over the EU through its “Belt and Road Initiative” and its massive direct investments in the bloc. However, its influence across the continent is uneven and therefore some EU members will be more sensitive than others to Chinese pressure, whether it will be implicit or explicit. Chinese influence can build tensions and mistrust within the bloc and damage European unity, which could in turn demotivate Brussels from becoming more involved in this sensitive geopolitical game in Asia. Moreover, larger European economies that are relatively less reliant on Chinese economic input would be more careful to preserve the status quo in their relations with China.
Beijing could easily paralyze Brussels when it comes to its involvement in the South and East China Seas and the same applies to the EU membership in NATO. European leaders fear that the Alliance could move from being a strategic partner of the United States into an object of geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China. Therefore, the EU cannot completely separate itself from the developments in East Asia. Economic disengagement from China would do harm to vital EU interests as well and therefore the EU should focus on boosting its capacity to autonomously deal with it security policy, on the one hand, and on Chinese economic interests including its investments on the other.
Moreover, Brussels should adopt a consistent, coherent long-term approach to regional security in East Asia, which presupposes that the EU will define what its preferred international order should look like. From European perspective, the best outcome of the regional geopolitical interplay would be if the United States and Japan remained major players and the United States shifted from being a military to a diplomatic actor. Despite the fact that the EU does not by itself have the capacity to be more than a marginal geostrategic actor in East Asia, it can contribute – through its well-tailored global strategy – to regional stability in East Asia.
‘The East and South China Sea Tensions’ – Opinion by Frans-Paul van der Putten – Clingendael.
(The Opinion can be downloaded here)