Over the last few years, China’s territorial revisionism in the South China Sea (SCS) has created the outstanding security problem in Southeast Asia. Unlike its American ally, which seeks to counter China, the European Union (EU) defines its tie with China as one of complementarity, rather than rivalry. In fact, “countering China” — a “buzz phrase” of US defense and foreign policy — is not used by the EU to describe its strategy on Asia or China. And, divided on its stance on the SCS, the EU is not a significant security player in Southeast Asia.
The EU views China as a global player. Brussels is aware that “China may use its economic and financial prowess to pursue its unilateral political and security interests.” But the unparalleled mix of the EU’s wish to have a complementary relationship with China, the priority it gives to trade, as well as the divisions within the Union that interrupt its common foreign policy, explain why it contributes little to Southeast Asian security.
Many Southeast Asian countries have welcomed large Chinese investments in their infrastructure mainly because no other country has offered them as much as China. But they are challenged by neighboring China’s growing military and economic clout and its occupation and militarization of reefs and islands in the SCS. China’s activities in the SCS threaten their sovereignty as well as maritime freedom and security in its international waters.
The Strength of the EU
The EU has the world’s second-largest economy. Three of its member-states are among the world’s top ten defense spenders. Collectively the EU spends €200 billion on defense. Such facts suggest that the EU could help preserve the balance of power in Southeast Asia. But it does not appear to do that, and the question is why.
Several factors explain the EU’s strategy — or the absence of a “hard power” strategy — in the SCS and, more generally, in Southeast Asia. Since the creation of the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2003, the EU and China have become highly interdependent. The EU sees them sharing responsibility for ensuring that their economies remain key drivers for global economic growth and prosperity for all. As important actors in a multipolar world, the EU and China plan to enhance dialogue and coordination at bilateral, regional and global levels, to meet regional and global challenges.
The EU’s Global Strategy (2016) makes clear that strengthening of trade and investment ties and increasing connectivity with China are intertwined. Enhanced connectivity with China is important for “future trade development.” China is singled out as “a key partner with the EU” wishing to deepen trade and investment relations. The EU wants to ensure that Chinese and EU initiatives work together, despite differences in approach and implementation: “Connectivity is not possible if systems and networks are not interoperable.”
What is noticeable is the inconsistency in the EU’s usage of “Asia.” The EU’s Global Strategy of 2016 referred to the “Indo-Pacific” several months before the Trump administration redefined America’s concept of Asia with that label. Then, under the heading “Asia”, the current European External Action Service (EEAS) website refers to China, India, Japan and ASEAN. Meanwhile, in the document on the EU and ASEAN, there is a sub-heading, “Enhance the ASEAN-EU cooperation in the ASEAN-led security architecture.” Under that, the EU reiterates its support for ASEAN centrality “in the evolving regional architecture in East Asia.” (The EEAS places Central Asia under the region labelled “Europe and Central Asia.”)
At another level, Asia is not EU’s biggest strategic priority. At the top of the EU’s strategic agenda are the areas comprising its strategic hinterland. They include Russia, the Mediterranean. North Africa and the Middle East.
Nevertheless, 40 percent of the EU’s trade passes through the SCS, which is therefore of vital importance to EU countries. And much of Europe’s trade goes through the Indian and Pacific Oceans. More than 35 percent of all European exports go to Asia, and four of its top 10 trading partners are China, Japan, South Korea and India.
Since maritime security is vital to safeguard the EU trading interests, it can be asked why the EU, which claims that it is the world’s second largest economy, with GDP worth €15.3 trillion, is not actively engaged in securing the SCS.
One explanation could be that the EU underlines the importance of preventive diplomacy in non-traditional security areas, such as maritime security, conflict prevention, mediation and reconciliation, crisis management, transnational crime, counter-terrorism, cyber security, and non-proliferation. How the EU’s “preventive diplomacy in non-traditional security areas”could help enhance security in the SCS after China has gained control over most of the Sea is a tough question.
A Divided EU
China’s claim to much of the SCS has highlighted the salience of “hard power” in Southeast Asia. A reason why the EU does not offer much hard power to most Asian countries is that it lacks a common defense policy — even for Europe. It was only as recently as December 14, 2018 that 25 EU countries signed a defense pact to fund, develop, and deploy armed forces together.
The wider problem, according to Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, is that the EU needs a strategy based on a shared vision and unity of purpose between the EU’s member-states, and unity in action across the EU’s policies.
Divided the EU stands in Asia. The unprecedented tangle of arms sales, historical strategic interests, the South China Sea and trade reveal why.
First, the EU’s 28 member-states pursue their own bilateral Asia policies. Europe’s engagement with Asia is mostly the sum of the different activities of individual EU countries.
Secondly, six EU countries are among the world’s top ten arms exporters. But they are not the pre-eminent arms suppliers to Asian countries. Germany exports arms to South Korea — its biggest customer, and the UK and the Netherlands to Indonesia. But Indonesia is not the largest vendee of British or Dutch weapons. Nor are China and India the main buyers of French materiel. All told, these arms-exporting EU countries cannot contribute much, singly or collectively, to the maintenance of the balance of power in Asia.
Thirdly, of the EU countries, France and Britain have a historical security interest and presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Since 2014, the French navy has regularly patrolled the South China Sea and will continue to step up operations in the area. Advertising Global Britain and its future outside the EU, the United Kingdom is primarily focused on forging new trade relationships. But it also aims to bolster its diplomatic and maritime presence in Southeast Asia. In September 2018, a British warship sailed past the Paracel Islands. The islands are controlled by China, whose claim to them is contested by Vietnam and Taiwan. China sharply riposted that Britain should refrain from being “Washington’s sharksucker.”
In the long run, any Anglo-French naval cooperation in the SCS will be bilateral — if only because other EU countries do not share their strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific.
Fourthly, the EU’s stance on the South China Sea also reflects the divisions between its member-states. The EU wants to uphold the Law of the Sea and encourage the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes. However, the vagueness of the EU’s stance on the SCS was obvious in July 2016, when a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled against China in its dispute with the Philippines over a part of the Sea. The EU responded that it was “committed to maintaining a legal order of the seas and oceans.” This bland statement pleased China. “Almost the whole of Europe takes a neutral position”, commented an editorial in the state-steered Global Times.
However, three EU member-states — Hungary, Greece, and Croatia — were not neutral and highlighted a divided EU foreign policy. Hungary, Greece and Croatia, who have welcomed Chinese investment, opposed condemnation of China. A day after the EU statement, Hungary published its own statement echoing China’s position that countries should settle disputes “through direct negotiations.”
Fifthly, the EU’s security priorities in Asia are domestic security, civil strife and economic development. But the main security problem for Southeast Asian countries is their international relations with China. More generally, the EU’s priority is trade. What impression its anodyne statements about regional security make on Southeast Asian countries — all economically and militarily weaker than China — merit debate.
Even when it comes to its top priority of trade, the EU is not the principal partner of Southeast Asian countries. At the regional level, the EU’s trade with ASEAN is less than China’s. In 2017 two-way ASEAN-EU trade reached USD 257.4 billion. China’s trade with ASEAN in 2017 totalled USD 514.8 billion. China’s strong trading ties with ASEAN also sharpen its edge over the EU.
On the bilateral plane, four ASEAN countries suffice to confirm that the EU is far from being their main trading partner. Sixty-five percent of the imports of Singapore, a free trade partner of the EU, come from Asia, and only 18 percent from Europe. Seventy-five percent of Singapore’s exports go to Asian countries, 10 percent to Europe.
Similar trends are visible in the EU’s trade ties with other Southeast Asian countries. For instance, Cambodia, with which the EU has been embroiled in a fracas about human rights, gets 93 percent of its imports from Asia, 4.7 percent from Europe. Fifty-seven percent of Cambodia’s exports are sent to the Americas and Asia, 41 percent to Europe.
Asia is the destination of 84 percent of the exports of Myanmar — another ASEAN country condemned by the EU for its human rights record. Eleven percent are sent to Europe. Eighty-eight percent of its imports come from Asia, 5.7 percent from Europe.
Located at the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Indonesia sees itself as a Global Maritime Fulcrum. Asian countries receive 70 percent of its exports, Europe 12 percent. Seventy-two percent of Indonesia’s imports come from Asia, 10 percent from Europe.
China’s economic and military influence is growing in Asia — and beyond. A prosperous but disunited EU has yet to agree on foreign policy and to frame a common defense strategy. And, giving priority to complementarity and trade with China, the EU will not play a prominent security role in Southeast Asia in the foreseeable future.
This article was published at IPP Review.