Trade and Globalisation

Reports and papers

A South China Sea Conflict: Implications for European Security

07 Mar 2016 - 15:41
Source: US Pacific Fleet/

How would a major security crisis in East Asia affect the security position of the European Union (EU)? This report offers a scenario-based case study, and then proceeds to discuss its implications for European security, with particular focus on the strategic interplay between the EU and the other key powers involved: China; the United States; and Russia.

First, the study provides a general overview of the key actors and economic/geopolitical stakes at play in the scenario’s theatre: the South China Sea, which has been at the centre of territorial and maritime disputes for decades, if not centuries. Subsequently, the ‘scenario proper’ is outlined. China’s establishment of a sweeping Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) triggers escalating tensions, which culminate in the accidental downing of a Chinese aircraft by a Philippine warship. The ensuing strong reaction by Beijing leads to an initial standoff with the ‘traditional’ regional security guarantor, the United States. However, China is the first to make a move to break the stalemate, and Washington’s reaction, far from being assertive and signalling an at least temporary willingness to disengage, has the potential to generate a variety of unintended geopolitical dynamics with major global ramifications.

The second part of this Clingendael Report seeks to analyse the non-linear consequences of the crisis described in the scenario on the security dynamics of the European chessboard. The crux lies in how the key actors will respond to the rather unforeseen ‘tame’ US reaction to China’s aggressive poker game in the South China Sea. Washington’s de-escalatory moves in South-East Asia rekindle European doubts regarding the credibility of the American commitment to upholding NATO’s Article 5. While it is unlikely that the authoritarian regimes in Moscow and Beijing will take advantage of Washington’s ‘moderation’ to launch an all-out assault on the geopolitical status quo (whether in Eastern Europe, the Arctic, or in East Asia), the crisis will nevertheless be likely to act as a wake-up call for most regional powers to take on more responsibility for their own security. With specific regard to the EU and its member states, critical developments in the South China Sea are therefore likely to bolster the already existing case for a more self-standing EU-based continental defence.