On April 16 the Council of the European Union issued its ‘Conclusions on an EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.’ The EU policy paper announced a “meaningful European naval presence in the Indo-Pacific.” However, the meaning of that exact phrase on top of who, what, and when would be deployed to the region have yet to be further explained. The EU’s policy paper mentions ‘EU strategic autonomy in Asia’ in the same vein, which leads policymakers and scholars to believe that European naval forces are on the verge of sailing into the Indo-Pacific to keep Chinese expansionism at bay. But not so fast. While British, French, and German naval vessels have been deployed — or are in the process of being deployed — to the region, it remains to be seen whether this will result in — and be part of — a sustainable European contribution to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, as will be explained below, the deployment of a German frigate towards the Indo-Pacific in general and the South China Sea in particular might potentially bring more harm than good to Germany’s position and positioning as a credible and self-confident contributor to security in the Indo-Pacific acting in alignment with countries such as France, the UK, Japan and the US.
But back to Brussels for now. in fairness, Brussels’ Indo-Pacific strategy paper is more tangible than a number of previous EU Asia policy papers. Policymakers in Beijing will have undoubtedly noticed that much of what is written in the paper is about China and Chinese territorial expansionism in the South China Sea. In fact, the guidelines go: “The Council notes however with concern the current dynamics in the Indo-Pacific that have given rise to intense geopolitical competition adding to increasing tensions on trade and supply chains as well as in technological, political and security areas. The universality of human rights is also being challenged.” The text has China written all over it, and the same is true when the guidelines claim that the “EU will deepen its engagement on the Indo-Pacific in particular with those partners that have already announced Indo-Pacific approaches of their own”: a reference pointing to Brussels planning to cooperate with the US, Japan, India, and Australia on security in the Indo-Pacific: to deter Chinese territorial expansionism in general, and Beijing building military bases on — or close to — disputed islands in the South China Sea in particular.
Moreover, the EU’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines talk about ‘ASEAN-centrality’ in the context of its approach towards its contributions to security in the Indo-Pacific. That, much to the chagrin of those who know ASEAN’s role in — and impact on — solving current security conflicts in the region is extremely limited. In fact, counting on ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum to address and solve such conflicts is wishful thinking more than anything else. In the past, Beijing has more than once put ASEAN member countries under pressure, threatening with economic retaliation in (successful) attempts to deter ASEAN to issue joint declarations condemning Chinese territorial expansionism in the region. This was – and will most probably continue to be – all the more regrettable as many of the ASEAN countries claim the same islands in the South China Sea China is building military bases on.
Furthermore, the EU’s guidelines specify that the “EU will further develop partnerships and strengthen synergies with like-minded partners and relevant organizations in security and defence. This will include responding to challenges to international security, including maritime security, malicious cyber activities, disinformation, as well as from emerging and disruptive technologies, countering and improving resilience to terrorism, violent extremism and hybrid threats, countering organised crime and illicit trafficking, in full compliance with international law.” To be sure, for the sake of political credibility, China should have been named as the country which is responsible for the above-mentioned state-sponsored activities. Not least because there is ample evidence available that Beijing (next to Russia) is behind numerous cyber-attacks in the region (and indeed beyond and globally).
Finally, the EU’s Indo-Pacific guidelines envision cooperation between Europe and other countries in the region in the framework of EU Common Security and Defence Policy missions (CSDP). However, the EU’s policy paper does not cite any examples nor scenarios about where and how such cooperation might be thinkable and feasible. On the ground, implementing such type of cooperation is very complex. Japan and the EU, for instance, have unsuccessfully tried to institutionalize Japanese contributions to EU CSDP missions for years, and while Japanese military troops have contributed to CSDP missions in Africa and Central Asia in the past, such contributions took place on an ad-hoc basis.
In March of this year, Berlin announced the deployment of a naval frigate to the Indo-Pacific region. The frigate will depart in August 2021 and is scheduled to return to Germany six months later. The German vessel will, among others, sail towards the Korean Peninsula to join a multinational sanction-monitoring mission the United Nations imposed on North Korea. More importantly, the frigate will sail through the South China Sea, albeit not within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed territories in the region as Berlin was quick to point out. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), every state has the right to establish the extent of what UNCLOS defines as ‘territorial sea’ to 12 nautical miles. Within this zone, coastal states exercise sovereignty over the air space above the sea, the seabed, and subsoil. By announcing not to sail within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed disputed islands in the South China Sea, Berlin is therefore giving the very unfortunate impression to de facto having recognized Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, which were judged unlawful by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016. Berlin clearly opted for playing it safe, which means that the German South China Sea mission is a potentially counterproductive exercise as it ultimately recognizes Chinese territorial sovereignty over disputed islands.
In the past, the US navy has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, challenging unlawful Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. US navy vessels would sail within 12 nautical miles around Chinese-claimed islands, leading to Chinese protests and (groundless) accusations of Washington violating Chinese territorial integrity. Against the background of Beijing’s insistence that maps dating back to the Chinese Ming Dynasty show that the South China Sea belongs to China, the German navy has ruled out conducting similar FONOPs in the South China Sea. Instead, it has decided to throw its political credibility overboard, announcing to navigate on a zig-zag course around the Chinese-defined 12 nautical mile zone.
To be sure, the US is currently the only country conducting FONOPs in the South China Sea, including sailing into China’s unilaterally defined 12 nautical miles around disputed islands in the South China Sea. Washington’s Asian allies and fellow Quad countries — Japan, India, and Australia — have so far been reluctant to join US-led FONOPs. Other countries not officially joining US FONOPs does not mean the US navy is alone in patrolling the South China Sea. Among others, a French submarine has recently patrolled the South China Sea, while British naval forces, including a new aircraft carrier, are expected to do their share of patrolling in the South China Sea throughout 2021. Berlin, on the other hand, explicitly and a priori reassuring China that it would adjust its course in the South China Sea according to unlawful Chinese maritime claims sounds like an announcement privy of political courage and common sense – a declaration from a government determined to do (almost) everything to make sure the German navy’s passage through the South China Sea goes as unnoticed as possible in Beijing. Berlin, the scholars Michito Tsuruka and Hans Kundnani confirm, seems indeed concerned about Beijing’s reaction to German vessels sailing through the South China Sea. Possibly the reason, the scholars argue in a recent joint Chatham House paper, why Berlin decided to order its frigate to call the port of Shanghai during its operation in the Indo-Pacific. The scheduled port visit in Shanghai does, Tsuruoka and Kundnani suspect, give the impression that Berlin had asked Beijing for prior permission to enter the South China Sea. This is because, they suggest, Beijing would not have allowed the German vessel’s stopover in Shanghai if the frigate sailed into the South China Sea without Beijing’s ‘approval.’ Who knows? But there is more pointing to Berlin wanting to ruffle as few feathers as possible in Beijing. Tsuruoka and Kundnani argue that changes to the German deployment plan in the Indo-Pacific make encounters between German and other European naval forces deployed in the Indo-Pacific next to impossible. Before Berlin’s decision to sail anti-clockwise through the Indian Ocean, Germany’s frigate could have joined three deployments in the region: the British carrier strike group led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth II, which will include a Dutch frigate and the French Mistral-class amphibious assault ship Tonnerre. Not happening now.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.