Europe goes soft with China over South China Sea ruling  

ROME–In the past days some observers alleged that the European Union (EU) would take on a more vigorous position on the current South China Sea territorial spats. Nothing of that sort happened in the aftermath of the much-expected ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on China’s claims to a large part of the disputed waters, with the EU leaders remaining faithful to their usual cautious approach to the issue.

ChinaEUThe arbitration court in the Hague ruled on July 12 against China’s demands over vast portions of the South China Sea, upholding the Philippines’ objections to Beijing’s legal and historical rationale. The case was brought to the court by the Philippine government in 2013. Manila has overlapping claims with China and other neighboring countries on waters and natural features in the region.

One day later, at the end of the 18th EU-China summit in Beijing, European Council President Donald Tusk voiced his hope that the arbitration court ruling would be a positive step to settle the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Tusk did not clearly call on China to obey the award; in a softer tone, he reiterated the EU’s full confidence in the work and procedures of the arbitration court in the Hague and Brussels’ support of the international law, not least of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. In Tusk’s words, “the rule-based international order is in our common interest and both China and the EU have to protect it.”

EU’s rules-based stance

The EU has a legalistic approach to the South China Sea issue and advances the argument that any solution to the problem should be rules-based and in accordance with the international law. This is the same concept that leads Brussels to maintain economic and financial sanctions on Russia over its annexation of the Crimea and backing of rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine, though restrictions against the Kremlin have negative fallouts for the EU state members.

The vision of a rule-bound system of global relations is probably the quintessence of the now tarnished European dream and is shared by most of the EU leaders. Despite its recent bid for exit from the EU – the so-called Brexit – and the increasing economic connections that it has set up with China over the past year, even Britain has always been in line with the EU’s stance on the South China Sea disputes, contending that Beijing must respect the arbitration court’s verdict.

However, any exhortations from the EU that China complies with the ruling delivered by the arbitration court in the Hague will be confined to the realm of principled positions. It is doubtful that the European bloc and its single state members will welcome recent calls from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies for a transatlantic initiative to inflict economic and financial penalties on China over its refusal to obey the arbitration court’s legal decision; and this even though the EU Commission has recently called for the reinforcement of the EU-US cooperation and coordination in the Asian-Pacific region.

No EU SCS patrols?

It is also highly improbable that EU nations will embark on “regular and visible” patrols in the South China Sea to affirm freedom of navigation and overflight, as suggested by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last June.

US RIMPAC naval exercise

US RIMPAC naval exercise

Still, after a long period of disengagement in East Asia, Europe is showing a more concrete interest in the region’s affairs. Le Drian’s words in Singapore fall within this logic and the same goes for the first participation in the US-promoted Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) drills by Germany, Italy and Denmark, which joined with regular European participants such as France, Britain, the Netherlands and Norway on June 30.

As early as April, the EU External Action Service raised the European bloc’s concerns over the climate of instability in the South China Sea. Underlining the EU’s neutral policy over the disputes, Brussels maintains that it has a stake in the region, where half the world’s trade passes through. The argument in the Old Continent is that in the current interconnected world the economic security of Europe is linked to stability in East Asia and other parts of the globe.

All that said, Europe is still in economic disarray and dramatically needs Chinese investments for its recovery, as well as China’s huge trade market as an outlet for its exports. In a recent position paper, the EU Commission refers to “the constructive management of differences” between Brussels and Beijing, meaning that the EU will be careful not to make a fuss about the South China Sea controversies.

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

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