The European Union and individual countries such as Britain, France and Germany recently issued statements claiming that unilateral action by some parties in the South China Sea has aggravated tensions and posed serious threats to maritime security. Two of the statements not only mentioned the so-called “militarization” of the South China Sea, but also deliberately stressed the arbitral award relating to the South China Sea as claimed by the Philippines on July 12, 2016.
EU countries have historically shown little interest in the South China Sea. Why then did they choose to issue two statements on the subject at this time?
By reviewing their decision-making process regarding the South China Sea issue in the past decade, it could be ascertained that the decision resulted from both external and internal factors. External factors included manipulation by the United States, incitement by Japan and lobbying by countries such as Vietnam, while internal factors refer to actions by “hardcore anti-China” politicians within the EU.
First, the United States has always expected cooperation and assistance from EU countries on the South China Sea issue so as to jointly contain China and help maintain overwhelming maritime U.S. dominance in the western Pacific region, which may be waning. Second, Vietnam is in urgent need of support from EU countries, in terms of legal principles, moral arguments, diplomacy, strategic deterrence and resource development. Vietnam, after its oil exploration activities in the Vanguard Bank region were strongly opposed by China, was desperate in seeking Western countries’ moral backing and support for its unreasonable and unilateral acts. Third, Japan, as a G7 member, has pushed for inclusion of the South China Sea issue on the agenda of the G7 meetings. It shared similar objectives with Vietnam in convening external forces to force Chinese restraint in handling the South China Sea issue, thus hampering China’s strategic moves in the East China Sea and surrounding regions.
The two South China Sea statements by the EU countries not only exerted pressure on China, but also cast a shadow over China-EU relations. The EU ignored the possible negative repercussions of the two seemingly “superficial” statements, which were clearly “accusing China and favoring Vietnam.” First, EU countries taking sides no doubt emboldened some claimants to beef up their unilateral actions such as island construction and oil exploration and development in the South China Sea, thus fueling maritime tensions. Second, the stance of EU countries, to some extent, further fanned nationalistic sentiment about claims for sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction over the South China Sea region, which has remained strong since 2010. And third, considering the fact that Britain and France sent warships several times to the South China Sea for military activities in the last two years, the statements could be seen as “official declaration” of the involvement of European nations in the South China Sea issue. The game of power in the region will consequently become fiercer.
As described by experts in geopolitics, the South China Sea is “Asia’s Mediterranean Sea” and has played a central role in the evolving power structure in East Asia and the world as a whole. This role has been gradually strengthened amid the collective rise of East Asian countries, particularly Japan and South Korea, since the 1980s and China’s rising status as a global power. Against such a backdrop, the South China Sea issue has been transformed from a simple sovereign and maritime jurisdiction dispute over islands between China and four ASEAN nations, into a tool of contest for dominance and interests by countries both within and outside the region.
To gain political support in this contest, some leaders and political brokers exploit the patriotic sentiment of many people in the region for their own gain. The Western world should have a clear understanding about the rise and spread of nationalism in East Asia. After having suffered for centuries under colonial rule, East Asian nations such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia demand above all else territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction. In the past half-century, this collective memory and nationalistic sentiment were gradually rekindled along with the evolution of the South China Sea issue. EU actions prompted some countries in the region to revisit the memories and trauma of their history of “colonization.” Rising nationalistic sentiment has become an important part of the current South China Sea issue and has also become a focal issue that decision-makers in the countries cannot afford to ignore.
As China has called for, the South China Sea should be a “sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.” Western countries, led by the United States, are fueling attempts to destroy this vision. There is no reason for the EU to become a bargaining chip of the United States and other countries in their contests with China. China and the EU, in terms of business and trade, politics, security and mutual trust, share many common interests. EU countries should not put the established economic, trade and cultural cooperation and people-to-people exchange at risk. They should not make the South China Sea an obstacle in bilateral relations.
China and the ASEAN countries have a plan and vision for the future of the South China Sea. At present, the 11 countries involved, including China, should seize the opportunity to accelerate negotiation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea and build a rules-based regional and maritime order with all parties sharing control. This is the only solution to the issue.