Europe Can't Save the South China Sea

The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle underway in 2009. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

America is on its own.

The United States and European Union reacted quite differently to the recent South China Sea arbitration ruling, with the European bloc distancing itself from the transatlantic ally’s sharpest approach to the issue. Washington bluntly called on Beijing to respect the legal decision handed out by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12, as Brussels loosely backed the arbitrators’ work and urged all parties involved to act with restrain and according to the international law.

Beijing refused the arbitration court’s verdict, which had rejected Chinese claims over vast parts of the South China Sea. China’s territorial demands to the region are disputed by the Philippines—which brought the case to the court in The Hague in 2013—and other Southeast Asian nations.

Some in the U.S. foreign-policy community do advocate transatlantic moves to push China to comply with the arbitration court ruling and assert freedom of navigation and overflight in the area. However, pressed by the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, and seriously underfunded, NATO appears to be in no position to challenge China in East Asia. Regarding the Western Pacific region, in the final communiqué adopted at the Warsaw summit in July 8–9, NATO’s leaders only expressed generic concerns about the nuclear threat coming from North Korea, with no hint of the South China Sea problem.

The EU Commission and the EU External Service, in a June 22 joint document for a new European strategy on China, actually proposed that cooperation between Brussels and Washington in the South China Sea was “reinforced.” But the EU is divided on how handle the matter, as it covertly emerged by the words of EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and European Council president Donald Tusk in the wake of the recent EU-China summit and Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM).

In the face of persistent divisions within the EU, if Washington wants a chance to obtain some help from Europe in the South China Sea, it will have to turn to single EU state members, and not to the European bloc as a whole. This is in essence the same strategy that the United States has taken toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose country members do not have a common stance on the South China Sea award.

France, the one EU nation with an Asian-Pacific military projection, has expressed an interest in leading EU’s South China Sea patrols to sustain freedom of navigation in the region. After the ruling, France’s ambassador to the Philippines, Thierry Mathou, said Paris could play a brokering role to ease tensions between Beijing and Manila. Yet, Mathou’s mediating offer is almost impossible to carry out in parallel with potential patrol operations in the contested waters that will inevitably end up angering China.

It is then unlikely that Britain and Germany, which lobbied for a clear reference to the South China Sea ruling in the final statement of the ASEM, as opposed to other European and Asian participants, will overtly wade into the fray. In the aftermath of Brexit, Britain’s move to exit from the EU, British bargaining power vis-à-vis Beijing appears to be weakening, as the new cabinet in London is keen to negotiate a free trade agreement with its Chinese counterpart.

As for Germany, it will shy away from any involvement in the South China Sea. Its economy is too interconnected with that of China, and it is doubtful that Berlin wants to operate as far as to East Asia, given that it has always been reluctant to even join military missions in Europe’s neighborhood, like the Middle East and North Africa.

Thus, in light of growing Sino-European economic ties and Europe’s attitude to work at most as a facilitator in possible negotiations between Beijing and the other South China Sea claimants, it is probable that a credible and operational Euro-Atlantic cooperation in the disputed waters of East Asia will not materialize, at least in military terms.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributing writer to the South China Morning Post, Asia Times and the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. In the past, his articles have also appeared in Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review, the Jerusalem Post and EUobserver, among others.

Image: The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle underway in 2009. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy