Major European powers are weighing how to step up their presence in China’s adjacent waters, including the contested South China Sea, as tensions rachet up in what some see as the dawning of a new Cold War.
For European powers like Britain and France, the stakes are even higher as they adopt ever-tougher stances against China’s unilateral moves and naval assertiveness in the strategic maritime region.
Both European countries are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and full-fledged nuclear powers with ‘blue water’ naval capabilities. They also have significant territorial possessions in a region with major trade and investment partners.
France released a regional strategy paper last year in which it vowed “to cement its posture as a regional power of the Indo-Pacific, working to protect its sovereign interests and the security of its citizens, while actively contributing to international stability.”
Earlier this month, Germany waded into Asian waters via a 40-page policy guideline that said, among other ambitions, that it aims to make “an active contribution to shaping the international order in the Indo-Pacific.”
The pronouncement was significant considering Germany has neither territorial possessions in the region nor ‘blue water’ naval capability to project power in faraway oceans.
Britain is yet to follow suit and the ongoing “Brexit” saga has complicated its relations with the region, seen in the recent revocation of its “dialogue partnership” status with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Nonetheless, there are growing calls at home for Britain to deploy military ships and check China’s rising maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly contemplating to send the newly-minted £3.1 billion (US$4 billion) HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the South China Sea in a show of force as well as support for international partners like the US.
Under President Emmanuel Macron, France has adopted a proactive strategic posture in the region with an eye on China.
Under Macron’s watch, France has stepped up strategic engagements across the region, expanding defense and economic ties with like-minded democratic powers in Australia, Japan, India and Southeast Asia.
During a 2018 visit to the region, Macron called for new strategic alliances including a Franco-Australian-India axis to preserve a free and open order in the Indo-Pacific.
In recent years, France has signed major defense deals with allied powers, including a $38 billion submarine deal with the Royal Australian Navy and a more recent $9.4 billion Rafale jet fighter deal with India.
“We’re not naive: if we want to be seen and respected by China as an equal partner, we must organize ourselves,” said Macron during a visit to an Australian naval facility.
During his visit to China earlier that year, Macron told his Beijing hosts that the country’s economic initiatives should not be “one-way” and instead should ensure the interests of partner nations.
France has also flexed its naval muscles as part of broader US-led efforts to preserve freedom of navigation and overflight in China’s adjacent waters.
Last year, China unceremoniously disinvited France from the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy celebrations after the French frigate Vendemiaire (F734) conducted freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Straits.
A key US ally, post-Brexit Britain is now contemplating its next move. This week saw the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier conduct preliminary drills as it prepares for more distant deployments in 2021.
Next on the calendar is joint exercises with the US involving newly-acquired F35 Lightning fighter jets, as the British aircraft carrier prepares for strike carrier capability declaration in coming months.
Noting rising tensions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, British Member of Parliament Andrew Bowie has called on Johnson’s government “open its eyes to the glaringly obvious” threats posed by China and “step up to the plate” by deploying the aircraft carrier to the Western Pacific.
“[The] size of the Chinese fleet and its rate of growth should be a clear warning of China’s determination to become a maritime superpower,” warned the British parliamentarian and former naval officer.
“With the renewed rejection in July by both America and Australia of China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, it is time that a truly global Britain steps up to the plate and meets this unwarranted and illegal encroachment with renewed assertiveness,” Bowie said.
Back in 2017, Johnson, then serving as foreign secretary, suggested that Britain will likely deploy its latest aircraft carrier to the South China Sea by 2021. But the European power is still finalizing its plans as it takes into consideration China’s potential response.
There are, however, signs of a hardening stance against Beijing, with Britain turning down major deals with state-backed Chinese companies such as Huawei over perceived security risks, making it a party to a rising tech war pitting US versus Chinese allies.
In a July media interview, Chinese Ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming accused the Johnson administration of “seriously poison[ing] the atmosphere of China-UK relationship” and warned of major consequences if Britain decides to “gang up with the United States” in the South China Sea.
“After Brexit I think the UK still wants to play an important role in the world. That is not the way to play an important role,” the Chinse envoy said, echoing earlier threats to prospective trade and investment deals with Britain.
“Some British politicians cling to the Cold War mentality…They play up the so-called China threat, see China as a hostile state, threaten a complete decoupling from China and even clamor for a new Cold War against China,” Liu said.