The European Union is looking to play a more influential role in the western Pacific to help counter China’s rising power. Coming alongside recent and future deployments of naval vessels belonging to EU member-states into the region, has been a more assertive tone emanating from Brussels. Especially when it comes to recent Chinese action in the South China Sea. The EU has blamed China for endangering the peace and turning a blind eye to international law. The EU was talking specifically about the situation at Whitsun Reef, as well as the 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that rejected China’s claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea. More to the point, China’s refusal to accept the ruling. “Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region,” a EU spokesperson said in a statement released this past weekend.
China wasted little time in rejecting the EU accusation. The Chinese Mission to the EU reiterated that the reef is part of China’s Nansha Islands and that it is “reasonable and lawful” for Chinese fishing boats to operate there and shelter from the wind. The Philippines does not abide by the Chinese claim to Whitsun Reef. Manila claims the reef is located inside of its EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone), a position the EU supports.
The EU’s words and actions concerning the South China Sea are causing concern in Beijing that Europe, the United States and other Indo-Pacific nations are orchestrating a coordinated approach towards China. Some Chinese officials view this as the start of a largescale containment effort that could bring about difficulties for China down the road.
Brussels, though, is balancing its strong language and actions with dialogue on other tracks. As the economic ties between China and Europe continue to grow, diplomats are reluctant to close the door entirely on Beijing for fear of economic backlash. A geopolitical attempt by the EU to have its cake, as well as eat it too. Practically speaking, the consensus does not exist for bloc-wide sanctions to be put in place against China, should the need arise. Nor do EU nations have the ability to project military power in force around the western Pacific, leaving very little to support the strong language with. Beijing understands this, as well as the fact that Europe needs China far more than China needs Europe for the moment.