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Europe Joins the South China Sea Fray

Sep 25, 2020

Already a geopolitical tinderbox, the hotly disputed South China Sea is set to become ever more congested with European powers now joining in. Just months after the release of the Trump administration’s major policy statement on the maritime spat, Europe’s three leading powers have jointly submitted a strongly-worded note verbale to the United Nations (UN) on the hot button issue. 

Led by the French mission at the UN, France, Germany and the United Kingdom emphasized their growing worries over “the integrity” of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and “underline[d] the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas, in particular the freedom of navigation and overflight, and of the right of innocent passage” across the disputed waters. 

But going beyond emphasizing standard concerns with access and international public goods in the South China Sea, the three powers directly questioned China’s “historic rights” for they “do not comply with international law”. To Beijing’s further dismay, France, Germany and the UK invoked the Philippine-initiated 2016 arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which rejected the bulk of Beijing’s claims in adjacent waters. China, which boycotted the arbitration proceedings, has consistently refused to either recognize or comply with the award. 

It remains to be seen how far Europe is willing to go in shaping the maritime disputes along its preferences and provisions of international law. But what’s increasingly clear is that the South China Sea is no longer just about a superpower showdown between the US and China, nor purely a regional dispute between Beijing and its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors. By all accounts, we are lurching towards a veritable global conflict. 

Roots of a Global Conflict 

Competing claims across the South China Sea have a centuries-old history. Both China as well as various Southeast Asian nations have laid claim to the area based on the navigational history of their ancestors spanning thousands of years. The advent of European colonialism, however, saw the British and French empires dominate the area, both geopolitically and cartographically, with a whole host of land features across the area bearing European names and corresponding transliterations

But Western hegemony was briefly punctured by Japanese imperialism throughout the Second World War. During the second half of the 20th century, there was a massive scramble between China and its post-colonial neighbors, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, for the South China Sea’s disputed land features. Well into the 1990s, external powers such as the United States largely kept out of the disputes, most evident in its virtual abandonment of the Philippines during the latter’s showdown with China over Mischief Reef in 1995

Two major events, however, turned the South China Sea into a global geopolitical chessboard. The first was the joint decision by Vietnam and Malaysia in 2009 to solidify their continental shelf claims in the western portions of the South China Sea. China immediately opposed the move by accusing the two countries of unduly ‘internationalizing’ a supposedly regional dispute. 

The following year, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly injected her country into the disputes by arguing Washington has a “national interest” in preserving freedom of navigation and overflight in the maritime area. In 2012, when the Philippines and China found themselves locked into a months-long naval standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, the US couldn’t just turn a blind eye. Under its Pivot to Asia policy, the Obama administration expanded its military presence in the region, a trend that has dramatically accelerated under President Donald Trump.

New Pivot of Geopolitics 

It wasn’t until recent years that European powers such as Britain and France began to step up their own strategic engagement and naval deployments in the region in the name of international law.

Up until the mid-2010s, economic interests largely dominated Europe’s engagement with China. This was most evident in the UK’s dramatic break with the US by joining the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). 

In the meantime, Europe’s largest economy, Germany, owed much of its economic dynamism to robust China, which voraciously absorbed high-end German products and investments. 2016, however, marked a significant shift following the arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which rejected China’s “nine-dashed-line” claims, as well as the election of Donald Trump, who would embrace a New Cold War with Beijing. 

Just months into Trump’s presidency, then British Foreign Affairs Secretary Boris Johnson suggested his country would deploy its latest aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the South China Sea as soon as it would achieve full operational capacity in 2021. 

On his part, the then newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron would also embrace a more proactive defense policy in the region, building on multi-billion-dollar defense deals with Australia and India. During his visit to the two countries in early-2018, the French leader called for a “new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis” so that the like-minded powers will “be respected by China as an equal partner”. 

This has coincided with deepeningnaval and diplomatic cooperation between France and Britain on one hand, and the so-called Quadrilateral (Quad) powers of Australia, India, Japan and the US on the other. Embracing the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” doctrine, which is a thinly-veiled euphemism for constraining China’s assertiveness, both France and Germany have released their own “Indo-Pacific” strategy papers, with Britain expected to follow suit. 

New Flashpoints 

Both Britain and France have described themselves as ‘resident powers’ in the region, given their extensive post-colonial territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Both countries are also full-fledged nuclear powers, have blue-water naval capability, and are veto-bearing permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. 

This gives them a measure of legitimacy as well as direct interest in sharping the geopolitical landscape in Asia, including in the South China Sea, where the bulk of global trade passes through. While shunning the US’s calls for joint naval patrols in China’s adjacent waters, both Britain and France are stepping up their naval deployments in the region, with Germany contemplating similar moves. 

Last year, France was disinvited from the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy celebrations soon after the French frigate Vendemiaire (F734) conducted a de facto freedom of navigation operation across the Taiwan Strait. 

In a telltale sign of Europe’s hardening position, Germany, which neither has territorial possessions in the region nor the ‘blue water’ naval capability to credibly project power in faraway oceans, is now seeking to “promote a European Indo-Pacific strategy” and make an “active contribution to shaping the international order in the Indo-Pacific.” 

Europe’s maritime assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and China’s adjacent waters has gone hand-in-hand with growing restrictions on strategic Chinese investments. In a veiled criticism of China’s rising economic influence in Asia, Germany called on regional states “to avoid unilateral dependencies by diversifying partnerships” with external powers such as Europe. 

Amid the festering Sino-American tech and trade war, Britain has reconsidered cooperation with China’s Huawei telecommunications giant for the development of a 5G network at home. In response, Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming has accused the Johnson administration of “seriously poison[ing] the atmosphere of China-UK relationship” and “gang[ing] up with the United States” against China. 

When asked about Britain's likely deployment of its newly-refurbished aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, the Chinese ambassador accused “British politicians cling[ing] to the Cold War mentality”, which could “threaten a complete decoupling from China”. By all indications, Europe’s major powers have gradually, and perhaps even reluctantly, aligned with the US on key strategic issues, including in the South China Sea. So what was once a largely regional dispute has now become a full-fledged global geopolitical showdown, pitting China against the US and its allies across the Atlantic. 

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