Rising Tensions in the South China Sea – Chinese Perspectives and Possible EU Responses

Floating cables or the pledging of a Dutch warship, these are but the most recent chapters in the story of the South China Sea. As tensions are rising between China and the Philippines, this Op-ed delves into the significance of the South China Sea and possible European responses to the recent occurrences.

For over a decade now, the term ‘nine-dash line’ has served as a symbol of disagreements in the South China Sea. The line represents what the People’s Republic of China claims to be its own maritime territory within the area, based on a map issued in 1947. The issue arising here is thus both legal and political. Legally, the People’s Republic of China, as a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), recognises its maritime borders as 12 nautical miles away from its coast, along with an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) up to 200 nautical miles. The EEZ is considered more ambiguous for it is not identified as sovereign territory but rather a zone within which a state has “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources”. However, other states can circulate there freely. To put it into contrast, China’s nine dash line claims roughly 80% to 90% of the sea in the area, far more than it had agreed upon by signing UNCLOS in 1982, and ratifying it in 1996

Picture Source: Flickr

The Value of the South China Sea

An essential question to consider when analysing territorial claims in the region is the rationale behind them. What are the interests that have led to the claims towards the respective maritime territory? 

A first aspect to highlight about the South China Sea is its value. During the twentieth century, Asia became a hub of commercial activity. The growth of the region’s states drastically increased commerce in the area, especially by sea as maritime trade accounts for 80% of global trade. Moreover, the South China Sea is located at the center of the area known as the ‘Indo-Pacific’, stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. The Indo-Pacific is home to more than half the world’s population, 60% of its GDP, and two thirds of global economic growth, according to the most recent US National Security Strategy. For the EU that accounts for 40% of its External trade and for China 62% of its trade. Hence, the area is of high economic and commercial value to most countries, hosting much of their trade flows. 

Along with this, the area has an abundance of natural resources reserves. Essentially, the South China Sea is composed but of a few bits of land, small groups of islands and shoals. Important groupings include the Paracel islands in the north-west, the Spratly islands in the south, and the Scarborough Shoal in the east. Vietnam has territorial conflicts with China on the subject of the Paracel islands; the Philippines concerning the Scarborough Shoal; and Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam  contest the Chinese claims on the Spratly islands. These islands hold important strategic resources for China including oil, gas, and fishing hubs. China’s demand for oil is the second largest globally after the US, and the country is known for its large fishing fleets, especially off the western maritime borders of Latin-America

These natural resources and the overall commercial significance of the area primarily point to their strategic value. China is highly dependent on the South China Sea for maritime trade, not only for the import of European goods but also of Middle-Eastern ones, including energy. At the southwestern edge of the sea lies the Malacca Strait, a small corridor between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Much trade goes through it and, were one to block it due to a conflict, this would severely cripple both the Chinese and global economy. The PRC admitted this in 2003, when then president Hu Jintao recognised this issue under the term ‘Malacca Dilemma’. Hence, controlling the South China Sea would not only give China access to a highly valuable commercial zone and its resources, but it would also allow for a better deployment in case of a military conflict. Thus, China has for over a decade now been trying to project power across the sea and better control the area it depends on for security and further access to the Pacific.

Satellite imagery of various Chinese held islands within the sea demonstrates Chinese attempts at doing so. On both the Paracel and Spratly islands, airstrips, ports, and land extensions have been built, militarising the Chinese positions.  

Conflicting Interests and Skirmishes

However, neighbouring States have not stood by idly amidst Chinese claims and expansions into what they consider to be their sovereign territory. Although the Chinese claims contrast with most of the other states in the area, clashes have mainly been occuring with the Philippines and Vietnam. Skirmishes have been going on for almost a decade, for example when Chinese and Vietnamese ships opposed each other near an oil rig close to the Paracel Islands on 4 May 2014. The event is known as the Hai Yang Shi You 981 standoff

Yet, what makes this particularly relevant today are the recent tensions that have arisen between China and the Philippines. The two have been opposing each other for many years and the Philippines even brought China to a UNCLOS court in the Hague. On 12 July 2016, the court ruled in favour of the Philippines although China ignored the ruling. Hence, the skirmishes continued, most recently culminating in resupply issues and a floating cable along with water cannons. In September 2023, the Chinese coast guard brought a long line of ball-buoy near Scarborough Shoal to block Filipino ships and fishermen from accessing the area. This outraged the Philippines which immediately executed an operation to cut the floating barrier. China did not defend the cable and it was quickly undone. Yet, the incident highlighted Chinese efforts at power projection and testing how far states such as the Philippines and Vietnam may go to protect their interests in the region. 

As a result of all of this, the Philippines has accused China of creating ‘maritime militias’ to patrol its waters and deter resupply missions through the use of water cannons and a large presence. Tensions culminated on 12 November 2023 as multiple Chinese coast guard ships and other vessels chased Filipino ships to prevent them from accessing and resupplying the Second Thomas Shoal. Later on, on 10 December 2023, the Chinese coast guard used water cannons against Filipino resupply vessels. Putting the Philippines to the test, the Chinese actions often remain within the grey area, enough to deter efforts without provoking any larger conflict. 

Currently, the Philippines hold the Second Thomas Shoal, which is the location they are struggling to resupply, prompting dialogue between China and the island nation. The Scarborough Shoal has been held by China since 2012, after a month-long standoff.

European Involvement

In general, the EU and its Member States’ strategies for the Indo-Pacific insist on the freedom of navigation and the law of the sea. They acknowledge the area’s value for its international trade routes and do not wish to see it destabilised. The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy specifically mentions the promotion of “an open and rules-based regional security architecture”. However, due to the limited means available, concrete actions within the defence sector have remained limited to ATALANTA exercises around the Horn of Africa. 

Surprisingly, the EU Member State which has acted the most decisively of late is the Netherlands. The Dutch Indo-Pacific guidelines, published in 2020, push for realpolitik and power projection in order to preserve the South China Sea’s balance of power. This alludes to balancing the scales within the area. Thus, following its objectives and acting with the limited means available, the Netherlands vowed in October 2023 to send a frigate in support of the Philippines to patrol the area in 2024. This was announced by Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Hanke Gerdina Johannette Bruins, being the first Dutch foreign minister to visit the Philippines in more than 30 years. 

In balancing terms, a single Dutch frigate will not be able to stand against the Chinese navy, or even its considerable coast guard. Yet, the statement produced by this action, one of clear unambiguous support through action, is far greater than any unbacked condemnation, despite limited means. 

The speed and clarity of the Dutch response underline the lack of a wider EU response. Although the EU ambassador to the Philippines, Luc Véron, reiterated the European stance for the “full observance of the international law in the South China Sea” on 10 November 2023, no concrete EU action has been undertaken. This reflects the limitations of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. 

So as to become a more credible security partner within the area, something the president of the EU Commission Ursula Von der Leyen highlighted in her visit to the Philippines in late July 2023, the EU could form a concrete strategy between its Member States already concerned by the Indo-Pacific, including  France, Germany, Czechia, Lithuania, and the Netherlands, combining their means in order to better achieve common goals and defend European interests. These states were specifically mentioned as they hold Indo-Pacific strategies, unlike the rest of EU Member States.

Considering European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s recent visit to the Philippines in July 2023 and the increasing prospects towards negotiating a free trade agreement with the country, there seems to be a convergence of interests in furthering relations and action. This could benefit both the new Filipino government and the EU in the long term. Principles regarding international order and freedom of navigation are already agreed upon between them. Thus, what would require further discussion are the initiatives to be promoted.

Other concrete initiatives could range from creating a EUROMARFOR voluntary subcommand for the Indo-Pacific and South China Sea for those with strategies concerning the area to identify common actions like sending ships as the Dutch are doing. Such initiatives could bring more credibility to Europe as a security partner and enhance its voice in the region.

Yet, considering the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy limitations for a hard power approach and the EU acting as a more neutral partner in the region, its consensus and solution driven fundamentals could offer a more constructive alternative. For the EU, this ties into its very origins, touching on multilateralism and building peace. As the region is crucial to global trade, creating a space and platform for dialogue and cooperation is essential and should therefore be considered more overtly. The EU could be the ideal moderator and facilitator for Europe, ASEAN, China and other stakeholders to work together to form a community focused on cooperation regarding maintaining peace and stability in the South-China Sea and common development of its resources, enabling overall prosperity to reign in the region. Alongside this, through a coherent strategy, European efforts at preserving international order and stability will be considered more credible, while avoiding confrontational approaches leading to destabilisation and potential conflict over the South China Sea resources.

Author: Laszlo de Bellescize, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons