According to Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo at the 2016 edition of the Shangri La Dialogue, “Asia Pacific civilization blends in harmony, mutual accommodation is vibrant.” In spite of these reassuring words, the martial tone of the speech, the pursuit of Chinese land reclamations in the South China Sea, and the preemptive rejection of the validity of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s consideration of the China-Philippines case is a matter of growing concern in the region. Indeed, in Singapore this year, the key words used to describe the regional situation were “uncertainty” and “volatility.” Moreover, this concern has now spread to actors far removed from the core of Asia-Pacific security challenges, who used to favor a more balanced, if not neutral, position.
This position however, is changing rapidly, and this is particularly the case for the European Union, not renowned for its engagement in “hard security” issues. In spite of its own pressing challenges — the Middle East, the migrant issue, and terrorism — the European Union increasingly recognizes that its stakes are high in Asia. That’s not only true in economic terms – though those are extremely significant when more than 40 percent of the EU’s external trade is with Asia — but also in terms of security and strategic stability.
The main driver for this evolution, in Europe as well as among ASEAN countries, two traditional champions of soft power, is of course the growing assertiveness of China in the South China Sea, its rejection of global norms, and the hierarchical system of international relations that the PRC apparently wants to force upon its neighbors at the risk of growing self-isolation. Likewise, China’s more aggressive strategic choices are directly related to internal factors, and a worrying evolution of the regime, where nationalism and political control seem to play an increasing role.
Reflecting this evolution, Chinese discourses at the Shangri La Dialogue were much more assertive and more ideological than ever. Beside usual platitudes on the necessity to “replace confrontation with win-win ,” Chinese speakers made more bizarre assertions, comparing China’s inability to put more pressure on North Korea, to the inability of the United States to put pressure on Japan “in spite of the U.S. –Japan alliance treaty” — as if comparisons between the DPRK rogue state and democratic Japan were in anyway relevant.
But beyond that, one of the major issues for the international community, including the European Union, is China’s strongly asserted refusal of any constraints resulting from the international agreements that Beijing has ratified. This is the case with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the upcoming decision on the Philippine-China arbitration case. Admiral Sun Jianguo’s claim that China will not bear with the arbitration rule is particularly worrying.
This position has profound destabilizing consequences, as the PRC demonstrates that international engagements and treaties are valid only as long as they serve the national interests narrowly defined by the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.
In that context, France’s clear and firm position, as stated by Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at the Shangri La Dialogue, has been welcomed. Confronted with direct threats to the principles of rule of law in the maritime domain, the French minister reminded us that these challenges go well beyond regional issues, and that non-respect of UNCLOS could have consequences in other parts of the world, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arctic.
For France, one of the major military powers in Europe, with a global reach and a significant military presence in the Indo-Pacific theater, any threat to the principles of freedom of navigation and overflight wherever permitted by UNCLOS cannot be accepted. As mentioned in the communiqué published after the G7 summit at Ise-Shima in May, Le Drian pointed out that a rule-based maritime order, respect of international law, and dialogue must prevail over intimidation, coercion, or the use of force.
In that context, the proposal to coordinate between European navies to increase the number of European freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea by building synergies has been well received. If implemented, this proposal would signal positively the engagement of the European Union to contribute to the stability of a region of major importance to all.
Valérie Niquet is head of the Asia Program at the Foundation for Strategic Research (Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, or FRS) in Paris.