European Union members will step up their advocacy of open access to the disputed South China Sea, a key world trade route, despite Chinese claims to nearly all of it as they discuss the issue with Southeast Asian countries, analysts believe.
The 27 EU members, such as France and Germany, hope all countries can follow United Nations maritime rules in the South China Sea to ensure consistency with other world waterways and to protect a booming seaborne trade in goods with Asia, the experts say.
China claims about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, including pieces of the U.N.-prescribed exclusive economic zones of four Southeast Asian states. Chinese officials point to maritime documents dating back to dynastic times to back their claim.
EU leaders met in early August with the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations for discussions that touched on the South China Sea, and the two sides are due to convene again this quarter. The EU has met with the Southeast Asian association since 1977, part of the ASEAN’s series of dialogues with other major countries and regions.
ASEAN is the EU's third-largest trading partner outside Europe, after China and the United States, with more than $221 billion in trade in goods last year.
About 60% of maritime trade by volume passes through Asia and about one-third goes through the South China Sea, the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development estimates. The sea is a connector between East Asia and the Indian Ocean, which puts ships on their way to Europe.
“The EU ... has a big stake in the Indo Pacific region and has every interest that the regional architecture remains open and rules-based,” the European side said in a statement in April.
However, it continued, “current dynamics in the Indo Pacific have given rise to intense geopolitical competition, adding to increasing pressure on trade and supply chains as well as in tensions in technological, political and security areas.”
Neither the EU nor any of its member countries claim sovereignty over the South China Sea. ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam call parts of the sea their own, overlapping China’s own boundary line, and Taiwan claims almost all of it.
France, Germany, and non-EU member Britain issued a joint note to the United Nations almost a year ago challenging China's claims in the sea, which they view as a potential threat to international traffic.
“That’s pretty clear, they want consistency,” said Carl Thayer, Asia-specialized emeritus professor from the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“Why? Because the way you can do business. It lowers the risk,” he said.
Some EU positions on the South China Sea echo that of its Western ally, the United States, which regularly sends warships to the waterway as warnings to China. The EU’s website says, for example, that its members and ASEAN uphold “principles of a rules-based international order.”
EU nations have stepped up their own ship movements this year as well, but experts say they’re focused more on international law than with taking a pro-U.S. position.
If South China Sea claimants violate the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, they would open the possibility for individual countries to control European seas, said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. The convention sets up exclusive economic zones for maritime states, among other provisions aimed at sharing cross-border waterways.
“Their primary interest is to maintain international law, maintain open freedom of navigation rather than siding with the United States in its strategic competition with China,” Vuving said.
Southeast Asian countries with claims to the South China Sea oppose Beijing’s landfilling of small islets for military use and passing its vessels through their exclusive economic zones.
However, they seldom use language that enrages China, a key Southeast Asia trade partner, and the EU backs that approach to the maritime dispute, Alan Chong, associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said. Both blocs look to China for trade as well.
“They are coming along to ASEAN in part because they are aware that ASEAN’s game is probably the surest and safest way of maintaining this dual policy of both engagement and constraining China,” Chong said.
Even the subtle language preferred by ASEAN is “enough to put Beijing on notice,” Chong said. China will probably avoid responding publicly but privately ask around for the meaning of any communiques that come out of the EU-ASEAN dialogue, he said.