Tensions in South China Sea require more active role from Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

China is building runways and installing military equipment on artificial islands in the South China Sea. [Naval Surface Warriors/Flickr]

Member states should use their influence in the South China Sea to ensure territorial disputes between China and its neighbours do not spill over into regional or global conflicts, writes Charles Tannock.

Charles Tannock is a British Conservative MEP (ECR) and a member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

Recently, there have been reports over the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, with countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan and expressing concerns over neighbouring China’s assertiveness in the region.

According to a BBC report on 14 December 2015, China has been building seven new islands and three new runways in the disputed Spratly Islands area, in an attempt to enforce its claim to control over the seas and natural resources surrounding local reefs. More than 40% of the world’s trade passes through this geographical area, with China vigorously and diligently stepping up its efforts to establish control over the newly formed islands. All this in spite of calls from the international community to stop any further provocation by its build-up and militarisation.

China does not recognise the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but rather supports its claims over the nine-dash line, a loosely-defined maritime claim based on historical arguments which China uses to claim much of the land mass in the South China Sea.

Beijing has been using maps featuring the line since the 1950s, but it was only in the late 1960s that the issue really became a problem, after a UN report concluded that the area possibly had large hydrocarbon deposits.

According to experts, rather than targeting an energy-rich zone, Beijing is simply interested in shouldering out its neighbours as much as possible, to maximise the area of sea it will ultimately control. In effect, China is asserting a physical presence that gives it the upper hand over wide ranges of territory and forces its neighbours to react defensively, rather than focus on their own expansions.

In March 2014, the Philippines filed a case with the International Court of Justice requesting arbitration over its dispute with China, with the tribunal ruling on 29 October that it had the power to hear the case. The Hague-based Court of Permanent Arbitration on interpreting the Law of the Sea is due to rule later this year and it will probably find against China and the nine-dash line, hence a round of US-led diplomatic activity to seek solidarity from ASEAN countries with the Philippines when the judgment is announced.  At the same time, attempts to resolve the issue through multilateral negotiations between all the engaged countries have not been accepted by China, which has been pursuing a unilateral approach using its massive economic clout to gain the upper hand in the negotiations over its smaller neighbours.

On 28 January 2016, Taiwan’s outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou visited the disputed island of Taiping in the South China Sea to reaffirm Taiwanese sovereignty, saying the trip was aimed at promoting peace. This move has created tensions with China while the US and the Philippines have also reacted negatively, an indication that the situation could easily escalate out of control.

Earlier, on 7 January 2016, Philippine officials who were flying over the disputed area in order to reach an island currently under the control of the Philippines, received repeated warnings by the Chinese navy requesting them to change course and effectively denying them access to the air space above the disputed area.

The security situation in the South China Sea and the Asia-Pacific region in general is not a remote and isolated phenomenon but could rapidly spread and affect the peace and stability of the Western hemisphere as well, with the control over trade and access to natural resources being at the forefront of European national agendas in the area. The EU is called on to play an important calming and mediating role in the area, preventing any further escalation and over assertiveness, while promoting the processes established by international law in resolving such territorial disputes. Only such a course of action can guarantee long-standing peace and stability in the area.

The EU needs to step up to its international role as a deal broker and lead the involved parties through a multilateral negotiation process to resolve such territorial disputes. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea should be the guiding principle for such a dialogue. The EU should encourage the countries involved to seek a final resolution to these disputes in the International Court of Justice, which could guarantee an unbiased approach that will in turn establish peace and stability in the area for the foreseeable future. The EU needs to closely collaborate and consult with member states in this process, streamlining diplomatic efforts from all interested parties. Other international powers, such as the US and Australia, can also play a key role by influencing the willingness of the parties to reach a compromise. China is putting great political pressure on countries with no disputed borders, such as Cambodia and Laos, to try and split opinion within ASEAN.

The People’s Republic of China naturally fully exploits its fast rising influence on the international diplomatic scene, but Western and Asian democracies must also realise that if this is allowed to go completely unchallenged, it may potentially pose risks not only to the stability of the region, but also to global security. As China strives to regain its historical status as a superpower, it has to learn from the mistakes of the past by exhibiting more commitment peaceful dialogue with all its neighbouring countries. In following this direction, multilateral negotiations are fundamental to resolving the interconnected disputes with neighbouring countries. The European Union and its member states have much to offer in this exchange, with their wisdom and experience in resolving international disputes and assisting countries towards a more productive dialogue, conducive to the peaceful resolution of disputes.

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