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European countries will reinforce their presence in the Indo-Pacific, including increased naval operations, to counter China’s assertive activities in the region, analysts and a diplomatic source have said.
The European Union was “already starting to make its mark in the Indo-Pacific”, said Liselotte Odgaard, a visiting senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, at an event on Monday discussing the EU’s role in the region.
She said the EU would have a general policy line such as opposition to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and support for freedom of navigation, but it could not go further into concrete policy initiatives, which “will be left to groupings of countries to do and that is also what we see increasingly”.
The South China Sea is an important waterway for about US$3 trillion of trade each year – a third of global trade. China claims it has sovereignty over the waters, but is contested by its neighbours, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea have raised concerns for the United States and its allies. India is also wary of China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. The EU and some of its members have repeatedly voiced their concerns about Beijing’s island-building and military presence in the disputed South China Sea.
The US Navy and Air Force have increased warship and aircraft patrols to ensure a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, while France has been conducting naval operations through the South China Sea since 2014.
Odgaard said some countries had sent personnel to join French vessels in recent years to support the EU’s call for international rules for freedom of navigation in the waters.
“This year, for example, Denmark will send a frigate and France will send a carrier group [into the Indo-Pacific],” she said. “So there is a gradual step-up of this effort, which is by a grouping of countries that all agree that we should carry out operations in support of [freedom of navigation in] the South China Sea.”
She said some EU countries should conduct military exercises with India and Japan, “so it won’t be the EU but will be a sufficiently large grouping of countries that the message received will be European and not just individual countries”.
Britain plans to deploy one of its aircraft carriers to the Pacific and is considering establishing a series of new bases in the region. France is discussing the possibility of holding exercises with the Japanese military.
Patrick Cronin, head of Asia-Pacific security for the Hudson Institute, also called for “[bringing] Europe into the equation” in the Indo-Pacific to push Beijing to obey the rules of free navigation in international waters.
“I see a question of preferential rules [regarding China’s territorial claims] – being mostly promoted by China but other revisionist powers as well – versus the international rule of law being one of the top challenges we face in the Indo-Pacific and globally,” Cronin said.
“That’s why Europe can be so helpful, in helping to remind everybody that we ought to be working on an international law of rules, not some special sphere of influence where rules are suddenly [applied] differently.”
There have been growing concerns in Europe about challenges to the bloc’s economy and security from China, which has been accused of not playing by international rules.
In an EU document published last week, the European Commission, the union’s executive, for the first time identified China as an “economic competitor” and “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”.
It presented 10 proposals to seek a balanced relationship with China and solidify the EU’s unity to counter the influence of the bloc’s top trading partner.
EU leaders will discuss the proposals at a summit on Thursday – their first in many years to address China – as part of a flurry of high-level meetings, with Chinese President Xi Jinping travelling to Italy and France from this week and the bloc to hold a summit with China in April.
During a security dialogue with EU members’ foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China and the European Union had differences on some issues but cooperation was a mainstay for their relations.
A European diplomatic source told the South China Morning Post that apart from growing discontent over a lack of reciprocity of market access between Brussels and Beijing, there was serious unease in the EU about China’s assertiveness in maritime strategies such as in the South China Sea.
The source said more naval operations by EU members in the South China Sea could take place.
Britain has repeatedly stated its intention to increase its activities in Asian waters and has carried out joint operations with the United States. It sailed a navy warship close to islands claimed by China in the South China Sea last August, angering Beijing. Britain has staged two naval drills with the US in the disputed waters this year.
John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre and deputy director of the Henry Jackson Society, a Britain-based think tank, said at the same event in Washington that Britain was considering formalising a policy of sharing intelligence with Japan.
He said about US$124 billion worth of trade – 12 per cent of Britain’s total – went through the South China Sea each year, “quite a significant amount of our revenue, so we would be concerned about anyone – China or whichever regional country – trying to control that waterway”.
“[Britain] will not lead, but certainly it will follow and will join and become a responsible partner of the community of the states that are interested in an Indo-Pacific concept,” Hemmings added.
The Netherlands said in October that it would send a warship to join British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on its first operation deployment in Indo-Pacific waters in 2021.
“We’ll see more of that,” Hemmings said, adding that Britain, Canada, Australia and various European countries would be “banding together and operating in groups like this”.
SOURCE: SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST/PACNEWS
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