Exploring Europe’s Role In The South China Sea – Interview


“Europe could demonstrate its willingness to deploy warships into more volatile areas, to show that certain nations’ illegitimate claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea will not be recognized by Europeans,” argues strategic expert James Rogers.

James Rogers, an academic specialising in international relations, strategic studies and European security at the Baltic Defense College, spoke to ORF South China Sea Monitor. Rogers has also worked on reports for RAND Europe, the Egmont Institute, the European Parliament’s Sub-Committee on Security and Defense and the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He co-edits the blog European Geostrategy.

China claims to South China Sea
China claims to South China Sea

Q.1 Three years ago, in a seminal report, you urged the European Union to look beyond its traditional backyard and towards the wider waters of the Asia-Pacific. You most notably identify “the coastal region stretching from the Suez Canal to the city of Shanghai-and perhaps as far as Seoul-as being the most likely region to experience great power competition and general disorder over the coming decades”. Could you tell our readers how you came to this prognosis and why, in your view, Asian stability is closely intertwined with that of Europe?

James Rogers (JR): Thank you for your kind comments about my 2009 report! I came to the conclusion that the Suez-to-Shanghai zone would matter to Europeans for two reasons. Firstly, because trade flows along the ‘Royal Route’ (i.e. the maritime communication line from Europe to East Asia) were rapidly accelerating in the post-Cold War economic boom, while East Asians were growing ever more important as European trade partners. Secondly, I became alarmed, after reading Nicholas Spykman’s work from the 1930s and 1940s, over the similarities between Americans then and Europeans now: Spykman deploys an extremely sophisticated geopolitical analysis to show how and why an isolationist foreign policy is short-sighted and dangerous, particularly in the ‘rimland’ of Eurasia. To make his theories accessible, he likened world politics to a ‘magnetic field’ where a strengthening of one of the magnets within the field would alter the surrounding lines of force, scattering any nearby metal fragments all over the place. With China and India’s rise – and Russia’s resurgence – I realised that their interests would intersect increasingly from Suez to Shanghai (the ‘rimland’), pressing, progressively, into areas of formerly exclusive American and European concern. Using Spykman’s teachings on geography and isolationism, as well as his magnetic metaphor, I came to the conclusion that unless Europeans became more assertively involved in the Indo-Pacific zone over the coming years (an area where their own economic interests are in any case drawing them), their own interests would eventually be thrust aside, similarly to the metal fragments.

Q. 2. How do you respond to the dissenting voices of European isolationists who argue that it is not in Europe’s interests – nor is it within its means – to get involved in Asian disputes? More specifically, will the drastic budgetary cuts currently looming over many European nations’ militaries impact on their capacity to project power and influence in Asia?

JR: I think European isolationists are naïve and mistaken. On the face of it, they seem articulate, moderate and considered, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that their approach is based on hot air. I think many of these people have lost their ability to analyze global affairs from a dynamic geopolitical perspective that focuses on the great powers and their interests. They are trapped in a ‘Brussels bubble’; that is to say, they see global politics through the lens of the ‘post-modern’ European condition. Slightly high-handedly, they see geopolitics as distasteful and passé; rather, they hope the world can be tamed through ‘dialogue’, ‘effective multilateralism’ and ‘global governance’. They fail to realize that their precious bubble – post-modern Europe – only exists because of the military and nuclear might of the Western triumvirate (France, the United Kingdom and the United States). Further, as many of these European isolationists come from countries whose strategic cultures are primarily terrestrial, they do not see the world in the same way as the British or French (let alone the Americans) do. With a few notable exceptions – for example, Poland, Norway, Denmark and the Baltic States – they tend towards reactive rather than pro-active policies; they have come to accept being shaped, rather than learning to shape others themselves. So when China or Russia adopt confrontational policies, or when countries like Libya become problematic, they tend to throw up their arms in despair, proclaim the situation ‘too complex’, and shrink into their shells. Unfortunately, much like a bird whose eye is on a juicy snail, the shell only holds out for so long, should the bird be determined to get inside.

As for cuts in European military power, there are only two warrior nations left in Europe now: France and the United Kingdom. Some countries, such as Poland, Estonia, Norway and Denmark, continue to take strategy seriously, but are not big enough to have comprehensive armed forces or project power autonomously. According to NATO’s latest figures – except for the United Kingdom and a destitute Greece – all remaining European countries now spend less than 2% of their GDP on their armed forces (France, Turkey, Poland and Estonia come close to that figure). Contrary to the popular mantra, it is important to point out that European military cuts are not a consequence of the financial crisis – although this has not helped – but are instead related to a political problem, namely an unwillingness or inability amongst many European countries to give military power the attention it deserves as a guardian of their prosperity. This fact has not been lost on many Asian, South American and Middle Eastern states, who have been ramping up their naval spending, not only in absolute terms, but also relative to their GDP, and in some cases, quite substantially. As Paul Kennedy said of Europeans a few years back, ‘can that be wise?’

Q. 3. The Council of the European Union recently released its updated guidelines on The EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia. The document reveals growing concerns in Europe over the potential for increasingly “competitive nationalism” within the South China Sea and over the deleterious effect this could have over EU trade and investment interests in the broader region. It falls short, however, of providing any concrete recommendations over how Europe can help stabilize the region, merely exhorting China to display greater transparency and extolling the virtues of effective multilateralism. Certain strategic thinkers, such as Jim Holmes of the US Naval War College, have suggested that European vessels should show the flag with greater frequency in contested waters, thereby signaling to China the wider world’s attachment to the basic tenets of freedom of navigation. Do you agree with this proposal? What other beneficial role could Europe potentially play in the South China Sea?

JM: I agree wholeheartedly with Jim Holmes’ proposal, which is not so different to one of the recommendations I made in my Suez-to-Shanghai report in early 2009. I argued that Europeans should set up a ‘go-anywhere’ coast guard, eventually of purpose-built armed cutters, under the European Union’s aegis (or a British-French force), to maintain a constant sovereign presence in the Indian Ocean, as well as undertaking disaster relief operations, repressing piracy and preventing forms of organized crime, including terrorism. This would free up European naval forces to concentrate on proper military and strategic issues closer to home, not least as the United States ‘pivots’ East. It would also provide a reserve of European warships to operate East-of-Suez or augment the coast guard should larger and more powerful vessels be required. European cutters could show the European flag (or the White Ensign and Tricolore) to demonstrate a European willingness to remain active in the Indian Ocean, while British and French warships could be deployed into more volatile areas, to show that certain nations’ illegitimate claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, for example, will not be recognized by Europeans.

Q. 4. What leverage or strategic advantage, if any, can be derived from certain European nation’s historical-and continued-presence in Asian waters? Does the fact that France, for example, remains an Indo-Pacific power render it more capable of shaping events in the region than other European nations? On a somewhat tangential note, does the United Kingdom’s involvement in the Five Powers Defense Arrangements still hold much strategic relevance today?

JR: I think a great deal of leverage can be derived, not only for France and the United Kingdom, but also for the United States. Both Britain and France remain trans-continental powers, not least because they have territories in or adjacent to almost every continent, particularly the Indian Ocean – territories which must be protected. These territories provide London and Paris (and the United States) with naval and air facilities, which can be used to station warships and aircraft, that can then be used in support of European interests. British and French military or logistics facilities in third countries, like Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Brunei, further enhance the European presence. Gibraltar, Cyprus, Diego Garcia and Sembawang dockyard could all be used by the British to reach and support the members of the Five Powers Defense Arrangements, for example, should the need arise.

Given the United Kingdom’s close economic and political relations with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia; its history and cultural affinity with them; the fact that over a million Britons live in them; and that Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State of two of them; means that London’s commitment to the Five Powers Defense Arrangements will likely continue, and perhaps even grow as new threats arise and new assets become available to the British Naval Service (i.e. bigger warships and auxiliary vessels, better submarines, and ‘pocket super-carriers’). As such, perhaps Paris and London (and Washington) should begin to think harder about how they can co-operate and reinforce one another in the ‘Asian Mediterranean’, including how they might assist if one was called on to intervene in a future crisis.

Q. 5. Several commentators have drawn attention to the potentially destabilizing consequences of a growing naval arms race in Asia. Several of the more offensive- and potentially strategically disruptive-platforms currently joining Asian inventories are, in fact, European in origin. Should the European Union engage in a greater effort to regulate high-end conventional arms exports to certain Asian nations in order to not inadvertently disturb the regional balance and exacerbate preexisting security dilemmas? Or will mercantilistic pressures override any possibilities of a significant shift in attitudes?

JR: I am not concerned with European arms sales to Asian powers per se. It may even be strategically as well as economically advantageous to sell weaponry to the Indo-Pacific powers, particularly to countries such as Singapore, Australia, South Korea, Japan and India, which have well-established constitutional governments; have close relations with Europeans; and act responsibly. Sales to such countries would also help balance the growing power of China and Russia, as well as, potentially, countries like Iran and Pakistan. That said, the strategic situation should be monitored constantly and Europeans should never do anything to harm the United States’ role and position as the ultimate security guarantor in the region, for this could also harm their own interests, particularly in the longer term.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

One thought on “Exploring Europe’s Role In The South China Sea – Interview

  • September 4, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    The European Union should reinforce rulings made by the US of illegitimate claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea?

    A few weeks ago, the EU Council approved guidelines for its Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia. On the South China Sea, the guidance was to continue to encourage the parties concerned to resolve 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.

    International legitimacy is certainly a tricky matter. In fact the US hasn’t adopted UNCLOS itself. The EU would surely want to know the basis in international law for any serious claims of sovereignty made by the US.


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