Europe and Maritime Security in the South China Sea
Beyond Principled Statements?
This essay is part of the roundtable “Non-claimant Perspectives on the South China Sea Disputes.”
The European Union, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom all signed the G-7 Foreign Ministers’ Declaration on Maritime Security in Lübeck in April 2015. The declaration reiterates their commitment to “freedoms of navigation and overflight” and to an “international maritime order based upon the principles of international law, in particular as reflected in UNCLOS [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea].” The declaration also makes clear that Europe shares the concerns of the United States and Japan regarding “unilateral actions” in the East and South China Seas.  However, despite this diplomatic support, Europe has been by far a marginal player in the South China Sea and appears disconnected from the Asian security debate that takes place in Washington—for example, only a very tiny minority of individuals in European capitals has discussed the possibility of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
This essay examines European interests in the South China Sea and argues that Europe faces a gap between intentions and capabilities regarding Asian security. This gap is widening as a result of the deteriorating security environment in Europe’s immediate neighborhood—the wars in eastern Ukraine and Syria, the refugee crisis, and the necessity of protecting European populations from terrorist actions. For the United States, Europe should be taken for what it is—a partner in values that can only make limited contributions to improving the security environment in the South China Sea. As long as tensions in the South China Sea remain below the threshold of armed confrontation, the policy debate in Europe will remain focused on how to best formulate statements.
Europe’s Declaratory Diplomacy
Europe has been generally restrained in commenting on recent developments in the South China Sea. At the EU level, the response to deteriorating security trends has come in the form of reactive statements reaffirming the principles of peaceful settlement, international law, and the importance of confidence building. This approach is summarized in the 2012 “Guidelines on the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia.” The document defines the European interests in the South China Sea in terms of the promotion of a “rules-based international system [and] the principle of freedom of navigation” and mentions “the risk of tensions impacting on the consistent increase in trade and investment, with negative consequences for all.”  The document also encourages the claimants to resolve their “disputes through peaceful and cooperative solutions and in accordance with international law (in particular UNCLOS), while encouraging all parties to clarify the basis for their claims.”  The EU reiterates these general principles whenever a major development occurs in the South China Sea. In May 2014, it issued a statement when China deployed an oil rig in waters disputed with Vietnam, leading to a tense standoff that lasted two months. The statement mentions the international law of the sea and the importance of a “peaceful and cooperative solution.” The main adjustment in the May 2014 statement concerns the greater insistence on freedom of navigation and the need to refrain from unilateral actions. Further statements became slightly more specific, including one released on the occasion of Vietnamese prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit to Brussels in December 2015 that emphasized Europe’s “serious concerns” regarding “massive land reclamation.”  A final notable feature of the European approach is the constant reaffirmation of the importance of all processes led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to guarantee peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Repeated in all meetings where the EU has a voice—such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Asia-Europe Meeting—this diplomatic language suggests that the essence of the European approach is to remain…
 “G7 Foreign Ministers’ Declaration on Maritime Security in Lübeck, 15 April 2015,” Federal Foreign Office (Germany), April 15, 2015, http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Infoservice/Presse/Meldungen/2015/150415_G7_Maritime_Security.html?nn=479796.
 “Press Statement by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk and the Prime Minister of Viet Nam Nguyen Tan Dung,” European Commission, Press Release, December 2, 2015.
Mathieu Duchâtel is a Senior Policy Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia and China Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
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