Enter Europe into the escalating contest for supremacy in the South China Sea.
In what could be a seismic shift, France and the United Kingdom (UK) have indicated their commitment to prevent any single nation, namely China, from dominating a vital sea line through which over US$5 trillion of trade travels every year.
As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and status quo nuclear powers, the two European nations add significant geopolitical heft to ongoing efforts to constrain Chinese maritime assertiveness in the area.
Both European powers are expected to conduct regular patrols in the area in order to uphold freedom of navigation and over flight. France and Britain also have significant trade interests in the area, thanks to booming trade relations with former colonies in Asia. France also still possesses several Pacific that host large numbers of its citizens.
As the US struggles to check China’s naval ambitions, other allied major powers are stepping up. For the past four years, the US Navy has conducted so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) to challenge China’s sweeping territorial claims and expanding military footprint in the area.
The naval patrols and operations, however, have apparently not been robust enough to deter China’s fast militarization of the features it controls. Indeed, Beijing has pointed to America’s FONOPS as provocations that justify its recent moves to fortify its positions in the maritime area.
In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly promised his American counterpart, then President Barack Obama, that China won’t militarize disputed land features in the South China Sea.
That promise, however, has been baldly violated, with China recently deploying nuclear-capable bombers, surface-to-air missiles, anti-cruise ballistic missiles, and electronic jamming equipment to its reclaimed islands.
Beijing has repeatedly described its militarization and reclamation activities in the area as “defensive” measures against America’s supposed aggression.
During the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue, a security talk shop held in Singapore, Lieutenant-General He Lei, deputy president of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science said: “All islands are part of China’s territories and we have historical records that are recognized by international law…The weapons have been deployed for national defense.”
The US has repeatedly criticized China’s actions, but is yet to unveil a new and more effective “FONOPs Plus” strategy. When asked whether Washington would go to the rescue of smaller claimant states such as the Philippines, a treaty ally, American Defense Secretary James Mattis demurred.
“We stand by our treaty allies but this is a discussion between the current administrations in Manila and in Washington. It’s not one that can be answered as simply as your question would indicate,” Mattis told the audience after his highly-anticipated speech at the security summit.
With America failing to provide categorical support to its treaty allies, many are wondering if smaller claimant states – namely Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam – have enough incentive and even capability to resist China’s relentless militarization of the area.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently announced three “red lines” in the area that if China or any other power crossed would be cause for war. His defense chief, Delfin Lorenzana, however has lamented his country’s lack of naval capabilities to prevent China from establishing an exclusion zone in the area.
“At present, we don’t have any capability to even to just demonstrate to others that we are capable. We are not capable. We don’t have the capital ships. We don’t have the weapons,” said Lorenzana last month while imploring the Philippine Congress to allocate funds for maritime security. “If they block our people from resupplying our outposts there in the Spratlys, then what can we do?”
Whether European powers Britain and France will help to provide stronger deterrence is not yet clear. In her speech at the summit, French Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly aimed to draw lines around France’s commitment to South China Sea security.
“France is not part of territorial disputes in the area, nor will it be, but we insist on two principles of the rules-based international order: Disputes should be resolved by legal means and negotiation, not by fait accompli, and freedom of navigation must be upheld,’’ the French defense chief said.
“We believe negotiations are the way to go. Meanwhile, we should be clear that the fait accompli is not a fait accepted,” she added in reference to China’s recent moves in the area.
The French defense minister also made it clear that while her country welcomes a Code of Conduct in the disputed region, any final agreement, “should be legally binding, comprehensive, effective and consistent with international law.”
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have inconclusively grappled with developing a mutually agreed, legally enforceable code for the South China Sea for nearly two decades.
Parly also said that, “France is not a part of territorial disputes (in the South China Sea) and…France is not at all at war with China,” but that her country will step up its own FONOPS in the contested area. “Europeans have started to mobilize more widely in support of this endeavor… I believe we should broaden this effort even further,” she added.
During his speech, British Secretary of State for Defense Gavin Williamson took an indirect jibe at China, citing “increasingly aggressive states” which are “infringing regional access, freedoms and security through coercion” as threats to a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.
“We believe nations should follow agreed rules but this is being ignored by some and what this does is it undermines peace and prosperity of all nations,” said Williamson at Shangri-La summit. “We have to make it clear that nations need to play by the rules and that there are consequences for it doing so,” he added.
Similar to France, the UK has also been conducting FONOPs in the South China Sea. It recently deployed two major warships, HMS Albion and HMS Sutherland, to challenge China’s sweeping claims in the area.
After years of buck-passing, America’s European allies are beginning to share the growing burden of preventing China’s domination of the international waters. But with their insertion the maritime disputes have become an even more complex mix of jostling and jousting superpowers.