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.
The South China Sea continues to approach a boil with two separate flashpoints within its geographical boundaries now providing fuel. With the Ukraine-Russia crisis grabbing attention, the South China Sea had once again become a chessboard for Beijing, with pieces being placed strategically, and in preparation for future coordinated actions, perhaps in multiple directions.
The first flashpoint is Whitsun Reef. A fleet of roughly 220 Chinese maritime militia and fishing vessels remain anchored at the reef which is situated within the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) and continental shelf of the Philippines. The ships have been there since 21 March, ostensibly taking shelter due to sea conditions. It has been two weeks now and with the Chinese ships showing no sign of moving anytime soon, Manila is growing impatient. The Philippine government has warned China it will lodge a diplomatic protest for every day the ships remain in the vicinity of Whitsun Reef. An aide to the current president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has warned that China’s ‘territorial incursions’ run the risk of bringing ‘unwanted hostilities’ between the two nations. Unfortunately, given the military balance between China and the Philippines, this threat holds little water. But the tense situation does highlight the fact that Duterte’s efforts to cultivate a pro-Beijing position since he assumed office, at the expense of US-Filipino relations to an extent, have failed. Duterte has warmed up to Beijing in the hopes it would make his nation’s holdings in the South China Sea invulnerable to future Chinese ambitions.
It would appear that Duterte has miscalculated.
Flashpoint #2 is situated nearer to Taiwan. The sea space around the island is becoming crowded now as multiple US and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) warships have arrived in recent days. The USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group arrived in the South China Sea on 4 April to conduct routine operations. This came 24 hours after the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and its battlegroup began running combat drills in the waters near Taiwan. In between all of this, the destroyer USS John McCain conducted its second transit of Taiwan Strait in recent months, placing Beijing on notice that the United States supports freedom of navigation in the region. China has become aggressive lately, probing Taiwan’s air defenses with multiple aircraft sorties into the island-nation’s air defense identification zone. There is growing worry among some analysts and defense officials that China’s activity in the area could be a precursor to military action against Taiwan in the future.
Author’s Note: Back to the Ukraine-Russia crisis tomorrow.
*Author’s Note: Brief update today owing to a packed schedule. Apologies.*
Manila has called upon Beijing to withdraw the 200+ alleged Chinese fishing vessels it claims are violating its territorial waters. Since 7 March, 2023 there have been dozens of Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun reef. The Chinese claim the reason for this is their need to take shelter due to sea conditions. According to observations of the fleet, there is no fishing taking place and in the evening the ships run powerful lighting equipment. Whitsun reef is considered by the Philippines to be a component of its EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and has filed a diplomatic protest which will, in all likelihood, go nowhere.
So, here we are once more with China laying the foundation for yet another South China Sea challenge. In global politics, timing is everything. The fact that China has chosen to apply direct pressure a US ally in this manner, not very long after the Alaska meetings is telling. Beijing is ready to expand its confrontational attitude and actions. If China’s move at Whitsun is not countered and reversed, territorial seizures similar to what took place at Scarborough Shoal in 2012 will be coming in the near future.