South China Sea remains a taboo in EU-ASEAN relations

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During a series of bilateral meetings in Manila from August 6-8, the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to strengthen cooperation on defense and security matters.

Maritime security, a hot topic in Southeast Asia because of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, is one of the areas covered by the new plan of action that will orient the enhanced partnership between the two regional blocs for five years from 2018. The plan also includes defense and security cooperation programs in the field of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, peacekeeping operations, military medicine and counter-terrorism.

No EU warships in South China Sea

When asked by Asia Times whether Brussels would be ready to send naval vessels to patrol waters in Southeast Asia in agreement with ASEAN, an EU spokesman said in an e-mail that “the extent and scope of [EU-ASEAN] cooperation is going to be defined in the process of implementation of the recently adopted plan of action”.

In diplomatic jargon, that means the EU is not ripe yet for naval missions in the South China Sea, where four ASEAN nations (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) and Taiwan have overlapping claims with mainland China.

France came up with the proposal to dispatch EU warships to East Asia last year. French military vessels routinely sail through the waters of the Indo-Pacific region to exercise freedom of navigation, and the government in Paris is keen to turn its own naval operations in the South China Sea into an EU-sponsored mission. Britain, which is negotiating its exit from the European grouping, has recently said it was also exploring the possibility of deploying its naval units in the contested waters.

In the absence of an EU naval presence in Southeast Asia, defense and security collaboration between Brussels and ASEAN will continue to remain confined to some aspects such as sharing of experiences and best practices, engaging in exercises or training sessions.

After all, in their joint communiqué of August 5, ASEAN foreign ministers called on claimant nations and non-regional states to exercise restraint in and avoid militarization of the South China Sea. The words used by the Southeast Asian grouping delimit the scope of current EU-ASEAN cooperation, subtly echoing Beijing’s vocal opposition to “external” interferences in the area.

Avoiding China’s ire

As a result, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and her ASEAN counterparts carefully avoided in their statements any mention of facts and issues about the disputed waters that could upset China.

In the joint statement on the 40th anniversary of the establishment of EU-ASEAN relations, released on August 6, the two regional groupings voiced support for the finalization of an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea between Beijing and ASEAN members. However, they forgot to say it should also be “legally binding” – a clause that is requested by Vietnam, but opposed by the Chinese government.

As well, the EU and ASEAN emphasized the importance of the respect for the rule of law in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but they made no reference to the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that rejected Beijing’s expansive claims to the South China Sea in a case lodged by the Philippines.

Further, in her opening remarks at the EU-ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conference on August 7, Mogherini refrained from addressing the South China Sea issue, in particular as far as China’s island-building and military activities in the region are concerned. Her focus was instead on the North Korean nuclear standoff, regarded as the “most obvious case” of a crisis that affects both the EU and the Southeast Asian grouping.

It is not by chance that Mogherini recalled the EU’s involvement in the ASEAN-plus disaster-relief and naval military exercises last year, which also saw the participation of India, Japan, the United States and China. It reveals that Brussels will likely consider naval operations in the South China Sea only if they are part of a multilateral platform bringing together all the relevant regional and non-regional actors.

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