Increasing European Involvement in South China Sea
Photo Source: SCMP
East Asia’s contested maritime spaces are set to become even busier over the coming years with increasing deployments of European navies. This is a potentially a positive development for regional states seeking ways to prudently offset China’s advance toward regional dominance while minimizing the risk of serious conflict.
As China’s trade and technology ties with the US come under increasing geopolitical strain, Beijing is seeking broad-ranging cooperative ties with the European Union and is less likely to initiate a confrontation at sea with EU member states. European navies, meanwhile, are likely to quietly defy the PRC’s discredited nine-dash line claim, while presenting Southeast Asian countries with opportunities to build capacity and increase cooperation. The touted increase in EU naval presence in the region thus offers a chance for clear but calibrated balancing measures against the PRC’s growing military power.
The EU’s interest in defending the global maritime order centered on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has rapidly crystallized in recent months. On April 24, the European Union’s spokesperson on external affairs issued a statement criticizing China’s deployment of large vessels to Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands as “endanger[ing] peace and stability in the region.” The statement also reiterated support for the UNCLOS, which has global legitimacy with 159 state parties including the PRC, and the use of its dispute resolution measures, citing the 2016 Philippines vs. China Arbitration Award, which Beijing has refused to accept.
This closely followed the release of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, also released in April, which stated that Europe should aim to “secure free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law, in particular UNCLOS.” Importantly, the document, agreed by the foreign ministers of the EU Council, called for a “meaningful European naval presence in the region.”
The strategy carefully positioned the EU as “a cooperative partner” in the region, flagging the bloc’s intent to expand cooperation over climate change, biodiversity, ocean governance, trade, supply chain resilience, disaster recovery and health. The focus on cooperation over competition contrasts with the US’ 2018 Indo-Pacific strategic framework, declassified in January, which emphasized strategic competition with China and designated the maintenance of American “strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific” as a key goal. Indeed, the EU Council’s document expressed “concern” at intensifying geopolitical competition in the region, suggesting future naval deployments would be calibrated to avoid exacerbating such dynamics.
The EU strategy did not state which member states would supply the “meaningful” naval presence, but France has been increasing its naval deployments to the region and looks set to be joined by Germany later this year. In March, officials in Berlin flagged the country’s first naval deployment through the South China Sea since 2002.
The officials said the operation would not make any explicit challenge to PRC claims in the area, suggesting the German navy would not pass close to any of the PRC’s artificial islands in the Spratlys, as the United States Navy has in its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) since 2015. Neither would the German mission challenge the PRC’s straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Archipelago, as the UK’s navy did in 2018.
Nonetheless, simply transiting the area enclosed by the PRC’s “nine-dash line” without seeking permission from Beijing constitutes a pre-emptive challenge to implicit PRC claims to jurisdiction over the entire area — the reading of the nine-dash line deemed unlawful by a 2016 arbitral tribunal constituted under the UNCLOS.
The German deployment is in line with Berlin’s Policy Guidelines for Indo-Pacific Region released in September 2020, which declared: “Germany is prepared to promote the enforcement of rules and norms in the region.”
France has been the most active European navy in East Asia in recent years, having conducted naval deployments there each year since 2014. Recent deployments and official comments suggest a further intensification of France’s naval activities.
In February, French Defence Minister Florence Parly announced that a nuclear submarine — designed to locate and attack enemy submarines — had recently participated in a patrol through the South China Sea. Touting the mission as “extraordinary,” Parly stated on Twitter that the move constituted “striking proof of our French Navy's capacity to deploy far away and for a long time together with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners.” Parly’s comments made clear that the deployment was intended as a conspicuous effort to tighten ties with China’s strategic and ideological adversaries in the region, particularly democracies.
In another high-profile French deployment in March, a helicopter landing ship and a frigate docked at Vietnam’s prized deep-water naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. The port call forms part of a four-month tour with a stated aim of “deploying operational capabilities in areas of strategic interest.”
The visit also underscored France’s goal of consolidating ties with Vietnam, a former French colony and a key claimant in the South China Sea. The French ambassador to Vietnam was quoted as saying the visit was “meant to deliver a message in support of freedom of navigation in the air and at sea, which is shared by both Vietnam and France.”
The EU has a basic interest in preventing PRC military control of East Asia’s maritime spaces, particularly the South China Sea. In such a scenario the EU’s significant goods trade with the region would be vulnerable to PRC blockade. An estimated 40% of the EU’s trade passes through the South China Sea, and just under half of the bloc’s trade with East Asia is with countries other than China. This creates a significant overlap with the strategic interests of East Asian maritime states, especially South China Sea claimants.
The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy highlighted the expansion of its maritime domain awareness project, CRIMARIO II, into Southeast Asia, and “to cooperate with partners’ navies, and build their capacities where relevant, to establish comprehensive monitoring of maritime security and freedom of navigation[.]”
For Southeast Asian countries, this could be an opportunity to engage in clear but calibrated balancing measures — such as naval and maritime law enforcement capability building, naval exchanges and exercises, and potentially joint patrols — with less chance of their being misconstrued (or misrepresented) by Beijing as aggressive US moves to drive the region towards a great power conflict.
Andrew Chubb is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University. His research examines the relationships between China’s domestic politics and international relations in East Asia, particularly maritime disputes.