Europe has a choice on the South China Sea


Picture of Hanxi Chen
Hanxi Chen

Hanxi Chen is Director of the Center for European Studies, and Deputy Secretary-General of Guangdong Institute for International Strategies, China

In recent years, Europe has become involved the South China Sea issue. In the name of defending multilateralism and international law and order, it has repeatedly expressed concern. It admittedly has the right. But are these concerns based on fact?
I’d like to stress that the root cause of the South China Sea issue is the invasion and illegal occupation by certain countries of some of China’s islands and reefs. The Nansha Islands (often named the Spratlys) have been China’s territory for centuries. The Chinese people were the first to discover, name and develop them, and successive Chinese governments exercised sovereignty until 1939, when Japan invaded and occupied the Nansha and Xisha Islands (the Paracels). After the Second World War, these stolen territories along with Taiwan and the Penghu Islands were restored to China in accordance with the Cairo Declaration of 1943, and the Potsdam Proclamation of 1945.

China is not going to undermine international law or reshape the regional order

No one challenged that the Nansha Islands belonged to China until a 1968 survey conducted by an affiliate of the UN Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) indicated the presence of rich oil and gas reserves. From the 1970s, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia began to occupy China’s islands and reefs. They attempted to deny China’s sovereignty, arguing they had maritime jurisdiction because the islands were within 200 nautical miles of their coast. By doing so, they deliberately misled the international community. China is therefore the victim in the South China Sea issue. Nonetheless, in order to uphold regional peace and stability, the Chinese side has all along exercised restraint, handled the issue in a responsible and constructive manner, and committed itself to negotiation and consultation.
Another concern is the arbitration between China and the Philippines. On 23rd January 2013, the Philippines unilaterally initiated the arbitration, which is in violation of its agreement with China and goes against international law. The two countries agreed to seek a solution to disputes through negotiation and consultation. And according to its provision, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has no jurisdiction to interfere in sovereign issues without bilateral agreement. The unilateral initiation is a violation of the Convention (Article 280, 281, 283) and an abuse of arbitrary procedures. Chinese insistence against accepting or participating in the arbitration proceedings is an observance, not of a violation, of the law. No one should be criticised for taking lawful action.
As east Asia is becoming the centre of the global economy, the EU naturally has increasing political and economic interests in the region. There are voices demanding the EU be present in the South China Sea issue and ensure its security in the region if it’s to be an influential actor in east Asia. Thus it acted on 11th March by issuing a statement saying it does ‘not take a position on claims’ and also mentioned issues like regional militarisation, and the use or threat of force. The statement, between the lines, indicated China is the one disrupting regional security and threatening the freedom of navigation and overflight (FNO), but China and other coastal states are all committed to safeguarding such freedom through cooperation.
Indeed, there has never been an FNO incident in the South China Sea. China itself relies heavily on these maritime routes to transport energy and goods. 80% of its energy imports and 40% of its goods are traded through the South China Sea. You could say quite fairly that no country needs the freedom of navigation more than China. ASEAN member states and China have agreed to work together to push forward the implementation of the ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ (DoC), and the Code of Conduct (CoC) consultation is the right way to properly manage disputes and promote practical cooperation.

No country needs the freedom of navigation more than China

China is committed to peace and stability, and is not going to undermine international law or reshape the regional order. If Europe wants a China that clearly contributes to regional stability and development, it need look no further than the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
The EU champions itself as a fair and square mediator. But without looking into the historical narrative and basic facts of the South China Sea issue, how could it live up to being a responsible and impartial global actor? I should also note the fact that, as the most dynamic economic locomotive in east Asia, China is the EU’s indispensable friend and trading partner. EU interests lie in strengthening its Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China, not taking a side on the South China Sea issue. All the facts told, the EU needs to decide for itself what choice to make.

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