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European countries warships in the South China Sea undermine stability

2021-03-18 15:59:32       source:NISCSS

March 18, 2021

Some European countries are adopting a more high-profile and unhelpful stance on the South China Sea issue. A high-level official of the German government recently stated that it plans to send a warship to Asia in August this year and the warship will pass through the South China Sea when it returns. If that turns out to be true, it would be the first time that a German warship passes through the South China Sea after 2002.


Prior to this, a French submarine traveled through the South China Sea in February accompanied by a supporting warship. France recently also sent two warships to the Pacific region for a three-month mission. According to the published sailing plan, the naval formation is very likely to pass through the waters near Nansha Islands and Xisha Islands when crossing the South China Sea. In 2018, the United Kingdom set a precedent for a European warship to sail in the waters near the Xisha Islands in the South China Sea.


It is also worth noting that France, Germany and the U.K. respectively submitted notes to the Secretary of the United Nations last year, citing the illegal and invalid South China Sea arbitration award, and unreasonably accused China of its legitimate rights in the South China Sea.


There are many reasons for these European countries to increase their involvement in the South China Sea issue by means of dispatching warships and making policy announcements.


From the perspective of maritime security policy adjustments, the E.U. sees international maritime security issues as a "new growth point" for expanding its global influence and has actively carried out maritime strategic transformation in recent years. The E.U. proposed 12 themes that play a role in international maritime affairs, including "global governance based on legal rules" and "ensure maritime safety and free navigation." In order to achieve the goal of enhancing the soft power of maritime governance and to shape an international maritime order that conforms to its own interests, the E.U. has clearly made the South China Sea issue one of its three major issues in handling East Asian affairs.


However, it is also true that E.U. member states are still in disagreement on the South China Sea issue, such as what actions to take, the extent of actions, and the future direction, which has greatly reduced the efficiency of the E.U.’s South China Sea policy formulation and implementation. However, although the E.U. has not yet formed a concrete and effective action plan, this does not mean that some of the European countries will keep a low profile.


As traditional allies of the United States, the U.K., France and Germany have a foundation of common interests and willingness for cooperation with Washington on the South China Sea issue and share a common geostrategic goal in containing the rise of China's regional influence. Compared with Trump, the Biden administration relies more heavily on allies and partners to put pressure on China. In this context, the U.K., France, Germany and the U. S. have promoted their coordination and cooperation on the South China Sea issue, which can also be seen as one of their actions to fix the so-called "Trans-Atlantic alliance".


On the other hand, the U.K., France and Germany have different policy orientations on the South China Sea issue. As the closest European ally of the United States, the U.K. takes very similar position to the United States on the South China Sea issue and a stronger willingness to interfere in the South China Sea affairs with a tougher attitude towards China. France has sent warships through the South China Sea many times and has also publicly called on the E.U. to intervene in the South China Sea affairs in the past few years. In contrast, the South China Sea issue does not take much weight in Germany's China policy, and Germany may not blindly follow Washington in confrontation with China.


The European countries are concerned about the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the regional situation. In fact, in the past decades, China and other coastal states have made positive contributions to maintain the navigation security in the South China Sea, which has never been undermined by the disputes. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, there are legal regimes to ensure all states’ freedom of navigation in different seas and no state impedes or disturbs the normal navigation order in the South China Sea.


The freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is not an absolute freedom without any restriction. Instead, each state should perform certain international obligations while enjoying free navigation. The navigation should comply with the rights and duties of the coastal state as well as respect their sovereignty and reasonable security interests. The fact that China safeguards its sovereignty and maritime rights does not affect all countries’ freedom of navigation regulated by international law. Stakeholders both in and beyond the region are benefited from free and safe navigation in the South China Sea, which is the common view of international society.


The territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation disputes between China and other coastal countries in the South China Sea are not to be resolved in a short term, but peace and stability in the South China Sea are of vital importance to regional countries and the international community. Non-coastal states’ activities, such as intervening in South China Sea affairs, demonstrating military presence, and choosing sides on disputes, will only make it more difficult and more complex to resolve the South China Sea disputes and will definitely undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea.


Some European states have a disgraceful history of colonization in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia, but they also have successful experience in conducting maritime governance cooperation in closed and semi-closed seas such as the Mediterranean, the North Sea, and the Baltic Sea. History will always give people realistic enlightenment. Instead of showing off their power by sending warships to the South China Sea, these countries should act more cautiously toward the South China Sea disputes and play a more constructive role for the ocean governance and cooperation in the region.

Dr. Ding Duo is deputy director of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies’ Research Center for Oceans Law and Policy in Hainan, China, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS) in Washington, D.C.


Link: https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202103/18/WS6052a7f0a31024ad0baafdf8.html