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The European Union, A Different Power in the South China Sea?

15 Jan 2018
By Dr Nengye Liu
Chinese Premier Xi Jinping meets with EU Council President, Donald Tusk and EU Commission President Jean Claude Junker

In the post-colonial era, Europe’s empires have retreated from their once ubiquitous position in areas like the South China Sea. Despite this withdrawal, do these past colonial powers still have a role to play?

Europeans are no stranger to the South China Sea region. For example, France, as the colonial power that controlled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (French Indochina), claimed sovereignty over part of the South China Sea in 1931. Now, countries in the South China Sea region are among the European Union’s (EU) most important trading partners. In 2016, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was the EU’s third largest trading partner after the United States and China. Six major ASEAN economies—Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam— are, together with China, coastal states of the South China Sea.

The South China Sea has long been a flashpoint in Asia, with competing claims from several coastal states. The world’s attention on the South China Sea was once again heightened by the arbitration between Philippines and China. In 2013, the Philippines instituted arbitral proceedings in the Permanent Court of Arbitration against the People’s Republic of China under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) with respect to the dispute with China over maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea. The arbitral tribunal handed down its final award on 12 July 2016, supporting the Philippines’ claims.

Unlike the United States, which carried out navigations in the South China Sea in the framework of the Freedom of Navigation Program (FONOP), the EU’s engagement with South China Sea affairs is mainly shaped in statements and/or declarations. In March 2016, the EU issued its first statement on the South China Sea arbitration. On the one hand, the EU states that it doesn’t take any position on claims to land territory and maritime space in the South China Sea. However, on the other hand, the EU urges “all claimants to resolve disputes through peaceful means, to clarify the basis of their claims, and to pursue them in accordance with international law including UNCLOS and its arbitration procedures.” Because China boycotted the arbitration from the very beginning, it could be interpreted that the EU then was critical about China’s behavior in the South China Sea. The EU, however, issued its second statement on the dispute on 15 July 2016. It noted that the EU “acknowledges the award rendered by the Arbitral Tribunal” and “calls upon the parties concerned to address remaining and further related issues through negotiations and other peaceful means and refrain from activities likely to raise tensions.” The Chinese Government declares in its South China Sea White Paper that “China adheres to the position of settling through negotiation the relevant disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea”. To a certain extent, the EU’s second statement seems to be in line with China’s non-appearance approach in the South China Sea arbitration.

In general, the EU’s reaction to the decision of the South China Sea arbitration was in contrast to that of the United States and Australia. While Washington and Canberra bluntly called on Beijing to respect the legal decision handed out by the arbitral tribunal, the EU tried to distance itself from its transatlantic ally’s approach to the issue. So why does the EU, as a global actor, behave like this in the South China Sea?

The key reason is that the EU is a different type of power from the other major powers in the world. As first argued by Ian Manners, the EU, owing to its particular historical evolution, its hybrid polity and its constitutional configuration, has a normatively different basis for its external affairs than states do. As a normative power, the EU is supposed to project its core norms—peace, liberty, democracy, human rights and rule of law—to the rest of the world in a way that is different from state powers like the United States. Chad Damro believes that because it is fundamentally a large single market with significant institutional features and competing interest groups, the EU could be best understood as exercising its power through the externalisation of economic and social market-related policies and regulatory measures.

Like many other parts of the world, coastal states of the South China Sea must play leading roles in regional maritime governance. The EU’s interests in the South China Sea are largely in shipping and trade: that is to say, maintaining peace and freedom of navigation in the region. Therefore, apart from the fact that the EU has no military/hard power to project its values and norms, it is wise for the EU to shape the governance of the South China Sea through sharing its internal experience in developing sustainable ocean management, such as its environmental policy, integrated maritime policy, reformed common fisheries policy, action against illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and maritime transport policy.

Dr Nengye Liu is a Senior Lecturer at the Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.