The Chinese navy conducts an exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
The Chinese navy conducts an exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Just like clockwork, the Group of Seven’s recent comments on territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas have raised China’s ire. Chinese diplomacy activates automatically when the country’s sovereignty and national interest are questioned. This time around, however, Beijing’s reaction appears disproportionate, given that the remarks made by the G7 group of advanced economies during a summit in Italy on Friday and Saturday will definitely have no concrete effect on maritime issues in Asia-Pacific.

In the summit’s final communiqué, the informal grouping – which brings together the United States, Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy – voiced concern about the situation in the East and South China Seas, pointing out that it opposed “any unilateral action that could increase tensions” in the region and urged all parties “to pursue demilitarization of disputed features.”

In response to these words, the Chinese foreign ministry said on Sunday that the G7 members should refrain from making “irresponsible remarks” while Beijing was working with its neighbors to resolve territorial disputes in the area.

Though it is not mentioned in the summit’s statement, Beijing is clearly the target of G7 governments for its island-building and military activities in the South China Sea. The final communiqué of the G7 summit in Japan last year did not include a reference to the militarization of disputed territories in East Asia. However, unlike the Saturday document, it expressly called for the respect of freedom of navigation and overfly in the global commons.

Internal G7 divisions

Despite their apparent convergence on territorial rows in the East and South China Seas, it seems unlikely that the G7 countries will manage to coordinate common actions in the Pacific arena against China’s interests. The group has never been so divided, in fact, with US President Donald Trump challenging the other G7 leaders’ position in support of free trade and the fight against global warming.

During electoral events on Sunday and Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country and the European Union could not “completely depend on others” any longer and that Europe should take its fate into its own hands. It was an indirect reference to the US and its erratic president, whose stance on trade and climate change was also criticized by new French President Emmanuel Macron through the G7 summit in Italy.

EU countries have in large part a principled position on territorial disputes between China and other East Asian countries over the South China Sea and the East China Sea

Berlin and Paris look set to revive and deepen the European integration project to ease the Old Continent’s political and security dependence on Washington. While committed to reforming itself, the EU will possibly keep from backing a quasi-hostile Trumpian America in geopolitical confrontations halfway around the world.

Franco-British defense cooperation in Asia

EU countries have in large part a principled position on territorial disputes between China and other East Asian countries over the South China Sea and the East China Sea. France is the only European nation that regularly patrols Indo-Pacific waters. The French amphibious assault carrier Mistral and La Fayette-class frigate Courbet are now completing their four-month long “Jeanne d’Arc” training mission. They have sailed through the Indian Ocean, China Seas and the Pacific to improve multilateral and bilateral cooperation with Asian navies and exercise freedom of navigation in these waters.

The French naval task force includes two Merlin helicopters from Britain’s Royal Navy and a detachment of some 60 British military personnel. In mid-May, the Franco-British forces conducted military exercises along with Japanese and US troops in the waters around the Pacific islands of Guam and Tinian.

But while Paris explicitly advocates for freedom of navigation and overfly in East Asia, London has a more nuanced stance, stressing that it will continue to exercise its right to navigate through international waters and airspace as needed. Britain is cautious on the matter because it does not want to endanger relations with China while dealing with Brexit, its bid to leave the EU.

All that said, the 19th EU-China summit, which starts in Brussels on June 1, will reveal something more about the real attitude of Germany, France and Italy – as well as of the European bloc as a whole – toward the East and South China Seas conundrum. It is probable that a watered-down paragraph about the tense maritime situation in East Asia will be included in the summit’s final statement, along with the EU’s usual exhortation to handle relative disputes in the area according to the international law.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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