As the second most used sea lane in the world, the South China Sea is a global nerve center of crisscrossing sub-regional, regional, and global supply chains. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, more than one-fifth of global trade passed through the waters of the South China Sea in 2016 – a trend that has remained in place since. Coupled with vast reserves of known and untapped marine and hydrocarbon resources, the South China Sea has become an essential component of the regional and global commons.
What makes the South China Sea also one of the world’s most critical maritime domains is its positioning as a “strategic flashpoint,” which runs the risk of becoming a conflict zone involving the claimant countries and the two superpowers, China, and the United States. While these maritime zones may seem distant and less relevant to some, their role is far from peripheral to the European Union (EU), and a deeper examination reveals that the European bloc has a range of interests that tie directly to the economic health, diplomatic stance, and core normative values of the EU. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and the EU’s efforts to secure alternate oil and gas supplies from Southeast Asia make these waters even more critical.
Moreover, significant portions of European trade – in cars, machinery, and luxury goods – make their way to the global market via these tumultuous waters. Thus, instability in the South China Sea and the surrounding region has a direct bearing on the EU, threatening to disrupt supply chains and leading to economic repercussions on a scale that both the EU and its Southeast Asian counterpart ASEAN can ill-afford. Leading members of the EU – Germany, France, and the Netherlands, among others – therefore have immense direct strategic and economic stakes in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, especially with regard to the region’s largest economies: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Beyond realpolitik, there is a normative dimension to the EU’s role in the South China Sea. As one of the champions of a rules-based international order, international laws, equality of states in the global order, and human rights, the EU has been a proponent of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and other U.N. conventions. China’s unilateral actions in the South China Sea, including the creation and militarization of artificial islands in contested waters and its proliferation of multiple traditional and non-traditional security challenges, threaten the core values that shape the contemporary liberal international order. The EU and ASEAN cannot afford to be bystanders, as these developments would set worrying precedents that could undermine international norms in other parts of the world, including those closer to home. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its likely repercussions in the Indo-Pacific have not gone unnoticed in EU policy circles and have had a direct impact on food security in Southeast Asia, among many other second order impacts.
What unfolds in the South China Sea will invariably shape the geopolitical landscape of the twenty-first century. While Europe is neither interested nor geared up to bolster its direct military presence in the region, its Indo-Pacific Strategy and Global Gateway are definitive steps to build the capacities of small and middle Indo-Pacific powers and strengthen multilateral regional security architectures in order to deal with any diplomatic and strategic eventualities in the region.
With its greater involvement, the EU can assert itself as a significant global actor that matches words with actions. Europe can and should use its economic advantage and diplomatic strengths to encourage a peaceful resolution to the disputes in the South China Sea. Whether through back-channel dialogues, sanctions, or strategic partnerships, the EU must play a more proactive role.
The EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is good news for ASEAN for it is also in tune with ASEAN’s own ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific. In their Indo-Pacific strategies, the EU and its leading members – France, Germany, and the Netherlands – have also reiterated their commitment to respecting “ASEAN centrality.” Capitalizing on these efforts, ASEAN should seize the opportunity to enhance its engagement with the EU. The strategic partnership established between the two leading regional organizations in 2020, followed by the first-ever summit-level dialogue in December 2022, opens new vistas of cooperation. The EU is already a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum – a leading ASEAN-led security forum in the region. ASEAN could leverage more out of its long-standing partnership by inviting the EU to the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus and the East Asia Summit. After all, both regional organizations have been staunch supporters of multilateralism and consultation processes in finding solutions to outstanding global challenges.
Moreover, the commonalities between the EU Maritime Security Strategy and the ASEAN Maritime Outlook set a harmonious tone for cooperation. Central to both documents is a staunch defense of, and commitment to, international maritime law. The EU explicitly advocates for the preservation of a rules-based maritime order, especially emphasizing UNCLOS. Concurrently, ASEAN champions cross-sectoral cooperation rooted in universally recognized principles of international law, including UNCLOS.
Additionally, both entities prioritize maritime capacity building. Through its Maritime Outlook, ASEAN is keen to explore technical and financial support to bolster the maritime capabilities of its member states. The EU’s Maritime Security Strategy also highlights the importance of maritime capability enhancement, noting, in particular, the need to further improve anti-submarine capabilities through the development of common requirements for defense technologies in the maritime domain and the strengthening of projects such as the European Patrol Frigate. Moreover, the EU is also inclined to assist non-EU partners to enhance their maritime capabilities through education and training, which is in line with ASEAN’s needs, making it a two-way street.
Cooperation is often rooted in mutual receptiveness. The EU’s strategy unambiguously articulates its ambition to collaborate with external, non-EU stakeholders in the maritime arena. ASEAN, on the other hand, tries to broaden the scope of its external maritime cooperation by incorporating it into all its Dialogue Partner Action Plans and actively exploring new possible areas of maritime cooperation.
The EU and ASEAN should also seize the opportunity to benefit from the adoption of the Treaty of the High Seas by the U.N. in March of this year. This is a watershed moment for the EU and its member states, given that the treaty was the result of their relentless commitment over almost two decades of negotiation. The Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, as the treaty is known in its adopted version, has created the legal framework for the protection and usage of maritime resources at the international level. Such achievements should be the linchpin of cooperation enhancement between the EU and ASEAN in shaping the Indo-Pacific region.
As the saying goes, “When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” Even though the EU may not be an overwhelming force or have territorial claims in the South China Sea, the implications of what happens there are far-reaching, and it stands to lose much in the event of instability or conflict in the region. The EU and Southeast Asia face high stakes that call for a critical, common, and decisive response that involves economic, diplomatic, moral, and technological considerations.
By jointly engaging in this issue, the EU and Southeast Asia have a chance to assert their role in protecting the international laws so meticulously designed in the mid-twentieth century and preserving the rules-based liberal international order. With rising tensions among the claimants in the South China Sea dispute, as well as between the U.S. and China, stakes are shooting up, but so are the opportunities for the EU and its member states.