Europe should seek to engage China about its desire for a close maritime system.

There are many facets of China´s disputes with the United States over the South China Sea, but none generates more rancour than the question of military activities within an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This dispute has been the source of most US-China flashpoints in the region, including China´s harassment of the surveillance ship USS Impeccable in 2009 and the near-collision of a Chines vessel with the guided missile cruser USS Cowpens earlier this year.

The dispute between the U.S. and china is not about commercial ships, but military ones. According to Beijing´s interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea , military activities within a country´s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which extends 200 nautrical miles seaward from a state´s coastline are banned. Washington argues that this is a distorted understanding of the law of the Sea UNCLOS, and is supported in this view by the majority of states worldwide.

Following (here) China´s announcement of an Air Defence Identification Zoen over the East China Sea in 2013, it now appears that Beijing is seeking to exert soverign control over the skies as well, and given China´s history of harassing and coercive behaviour, mid-air confrontations with the U.S. cannot be ruled out in the future.

Bearing in mind that the achievement of these goals will contribute to the realization of a just and equitable international economic order which takes into account the interests of all countries as whole. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, India and Japan all vigorous proponents of UNCLOS are sceptical over the legality of China´s historically based maritme claims. They are also largely silent over the EEZ issue.

While the U.S has defended its right to conduct military activities, have all expressed reservations over the rights of foreign military vessels to operate in their EEZs. Some countries believe that unfettered military activities in coastal waters may invite gunboat diplomacy or threaten their resource sovereignty.

Others, such as Japan, are hedging directly against China. Amid doubts over Washington´s ability to uphold the principle of the freedom of the high seas, Tokyo believes that the proscription of military activities within its EEZ may one day come in useful in deterring intrusive activities off Japan´s own coastline.

Other Asian countries, even ones that suffered at the hands of Japan´s Imperial Army have become increasingly wary of a rising China as it becomes more assertive about territorial claims. Many, including Philippines, Vietnam and India, have also encouraged the US to pivot back to the region. And many of them have edged closer diplomatically to Japan, an important in some cases, the most important investor in their economies.

Abe of Japan, has visited all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in his first year in office. Even here the hedging against China is not just commercial. Many countries in the region, including the Philippines and Vietnam, are stepping up military co-operation with the US. Japan has supplied ships to Manila to patrol waters disputed with China, and is in discussion with Hanoi to do the same. Even South Korea has objected strongly to China´s new exclusion zone.

There is nothing unusual about establishing such a zone. Many countries have them, including Japan and U.S. Yet the move is provocative because China´s zone overlaps Japan´s.  From now on, China has a very clear claim on Japan´s  longstanding de facto control of disputes on the Islands, as one Chinese official made clear at he 2014 Shangri La Dialogue. China hopes to force Japan to admit that sovereignty over the 1895 islands is in dispute, something it refuses to acknowledge.

With Japan and the United States in one corner, and China in the other, the issue of freedom of navigation is taking center stage as China´s growing maritime presence continues to set off alarm bells. While Japan and U.S. differ slightly in their interpretation of the issue, thy are adamant that China must tow the line in what essentially boils down to international law.

In the longer run, China may seek to drive a wedge between Japan and the U.S. Although U.S takes no position on the those Island´s sovereignty, it says they fall under the remit of the U-Japan security treaty. That implies it could come to Japan´s aid if the islands were attacked. China´s aim appears to be to change the facts on the ground, or in this case, in the sea and air. One could argue that, as China´s economy grows, it is only natural that its regional footprint will also expand.

The stakes in this dispute are clear.

First, while the freedom of military navigation within EEZs has undoubtedly contributed to the U.S: Navy´s global supremacy, it has also ensured the security of merchant traffic form the predations of state and non-state actors, and underpinned the stability of world shipping lanes for centuries.

Second, for any law to be effective, it has to be clear. Freedom of the seas should be, as the British saying goes, “exactly what it says on the tin.” Exceptions to this rule muddy the waters over what is permissible and impermissible behaviour.

Third, the freedom of the high seas is important in achieving stability among major powers. The U.S: can achieve any number of its security objectives in East Asia through the commitment of military hardware, diplomatic effort, and economic resources. Yet, it cannot shape global norms alone. Freedom of the high seas is a norm that grew out of international recognition, not the efforts of one country. And if its is to be sustained, it must enjoy similar levels of support. This is a role that likeminded partners such as Europe should play.

As the world´s largest economy, Europe has benefited from freedom of the high seas as much as the United States, and it is within its interests to defend it along with U.S.  As an objective party independent of the U.S., Europe should seek to engage China in a discussion about its desire for a close maritime system.

Europe should take note of the challenge that China´s Foreign Minister Wang Yi set the United States at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting earlier on this month:

“arguing that the “current situation of the South China Sea is generally stable, and the freedom of navigation there has never seen any problems”.

The increasingly circuitous nature of this debate suggests that support for the U.S. by third parties such as Europe will be necessary to break the longjam and reinforce a principle that Europe also relies on for its prosperity and security. It is in Europe´s interests to promote the peaceful uses of the seas and oceans and to join in defending the concept of freedom of navigation.

The continentalist vision of maritime security, in which states can dominate the sea in the same way they do the land, would not only put an end to uninterrupted maritime traffic, but also see the extension of territorial disputes to the sea, where strong states would carve out their spheres of interest at the expense of the weak states.

Europe must come out in open support for the freedom of military activities with EEZs. This would embolden Washington to state its position more clearly-force Beijing to do the same. On this question strong European role could be vital.

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