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The East and South China Sea Tensions

11 Apr 2017 - 13:57
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Implications for European security

In East Asia, the growing power of China and uncertainty over the future role of the United States are changing the regional security order.  It is unclear what the outcome of this process will be. Perhaps the US, China and other Asia Pacific countries will eventually succeed in creating a durable arrangement for regional security.  But whether they will is by no means certain, and for now the geopolitical dynamics are not conducive to greater stability.

The fundamental issue at stake is the ability of the US to act as extra-regional balancer, that is, its ability as a non-Asian power to influence the balance of power between China and other Asian countries. Whereas the United States is trying to preserve this ability, China is gradually but persistently undermining it.  Far from being mere bystanders, the other countries in the region, in particular their views and expectations, are the main targets of this geopolitical contest.

This dynamic applies in particular to the tensions in the East and South China Seas. Whereas these two maritime regions have an intrinsic value in terms of natural resources and as domains for military and intelligence gathering activities, their broader strategic importance relates to the American role of offshore balancer. If China succeeds in establishing military control over the East and South China Seas – which would harm the security interests of actors like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan , Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines - then it will have demonstrated the inability of the US to play its balancing role.

Even though this process could seriously strain China’s relations with its neighbours, the loss of credibility of American security guarantees would weaken the US alliance system in East Asia and thus help to clear the way for a China-dominated regional order. On the other hand, if the US convincingly shows that it can keep China from striving to dominance in the East and South China Seas, then other countries in the region may retain their faith in US leadership for a long time to come.

Sino-American geopolitical rivalry in East Asia is steadily intensifying, which increases the danger that tensions in the East and South China Seas escalate into a conflict. The worst outcome would be a major war between China and the US, the potential effects of which on the international system – including Europe - are very difficult to foresee.  But even a smaller, localised crisis that involves China and the US could have important repercussions for European security. Such a crisis would divert American attention away from other regions like the Middle East and East Europe, and could encourage actors in those regions to become more assertive or opportunistic. Especially if they perceive Washington to be unsuccessful in playing its role of extra-regional balancer, this would probably change the geopolitical dynamics in the regions to the EU’s east and south.

A recent report by Clingendael explored how a crisis in the South China Sea involving both China and the US might influence the security relations between the EU and Russia. It concluded that a crisis in Asia could well have repercussions for stability in the European neighbourhood. The very cause of this - the US being distracted by a major Asian contingency - would make the EU extra vulnerable to such developments since it does not have a strong military capacity that is independent from NATO or the US.

Even in the absence of a major China-US crisis, regional tensions in the South and East China Seas affect the security interests of the European Union. In 2013 China launched its grand ‘Belt and Road’ initiative (also known as One Belt, One Road, or OBOR). This initiative, combined with the increasing level of Chinese direct investments in the EU, may significantly expand China’s economic and diplomatic influence in and around Europe. Because of the high stakes in the South and East China Seas, Beijing is likely to leverage this influence when it wants to keep the EU from taking actions that would harm Chinese strategic interests in these maritime regions.

Given the uneven distribution of Chinese influence across Europe, some EU member states will be more sensitive than others to Chinese implicit or explicit pressure. This can lead to tensions and distrust among EU member states and damage European unity, which in turn would create a tendency for the EU to refrain from becoming entangled in sensitive geopolitical issues in East Asia. Moreover, even member states with strong economies that are relatively less dependent on China are likely to be careful keep their economic relations with China intact.

Pressure from the Chinese government could increasingly paralyze the EU when it comes to acting on developments in the South and East China Seas. The same mechanism applies to the European membership of NATO. The danger for the EU is that it gradually transforms from a strategic partner of the United States into an object of geopolitical rivalry between the US and China.

The European Union cannot insulate itself from the negative consequences of regional instability in East Asia. Disengaging economically from China or its OBOR initiative is not the answer as this would damage vital European interests.  Instead the EU should strengthen its capacity to pro-actively and autonomously deal with its security environment and with OBOR, as well as with incoming Chinese investments.

It is also necessary for the EU and its member states to adopt a coherent, long-term approach to regional security in East Asia. The guiding question for this should be what Europe’s preferred international order should look like. Assuming that an Asia Pacific community – in which the great powers and smaller nations have a shared understanding of regional order, China accepts the US and Japan as major actors, and the US shifts from being a military to a diplomatic balancer - would be the best possible outcome of the ongoing geopolitical transformation of East Asia, this is what it should aim for. Even if the EU lacks the capacity itself to be more than a marginal geostrategic actor in East Asia, it can make a major contribution to regional stability and to its own global strategy by promoting – and acting in accordance with - its vision for a stable East Asia.

This article is based on a presentation given at a public hearing of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament on ‘The East and South China Sea Tensions: Implications for global security’ on 22 March 2017.