Tensions increased in the South China Sea following an incident between U.S. and Chinese naval assets on Tuesday.
Now the European Union has sided with the U.S. over what officials are calling a freedom of navigation of incident. China sees the matter very differently, and the EU decision may affect its relations with Beijing, according to Reuters.
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Warship maneuver sparks controversy in South China Sea
On Tuesday the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of a man-made Chinese island in the South China Sea. The incident took place in the disputed Spratly islands, which are subject to competing territorial claims, and drew a sharp response from Beijing.
However both the U.S. and the EU have claimed that there was nothing wrong with the maneuver. “The U.S. are exercising their freedom of navigation,” a senior EU official said at a briefing, echoing the U.S. line.
While the statement may maintain strong relations with the U.S., it could be brought up when EU officials meet their Chinese counterparts at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of foreign affairs ministers next week.
International concerns of Chinese land reclamation program
According to a U.S. Navy spokesman, the patrol was a freedom of navigation maneuver designed to “protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.”
Beijing’s land reclamation program has raised tensions among rival claimants to the South China Sea, and stoked U.S. fears that the new bases could be used to restrict freedom of navigation in the vital shipping lanes. An EU official stated that the union is worried by Beijing’s plans for more islands.
The statement will surely be welcomed by rival claimants worried by Chinese claims to almost the entirety of the sea. Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have overlapping claims to the maritime territory, which also contains rich fishing grounds and potential sources of oil and natural gas.
“Whilst not taking a position on claims, the EU is committed to a maritime order based upon the principles of international law, in particular as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” an EU foreign affairs spokesman said in a statement.
Will EU countries have to choose between Washington and Beijing?
For some time the EU has been working on its relations with Beijing in an attempt to attract Chinese investment and boost European economies. The bloc has been slow to recover from the financial crisis and there have been negotiations about a bilateral investment and a trade deal between Brussels and Beijing.
Despite opposition from Washington, EU governments have also signed up to the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The new organization is designed to be an alternative to the U.S.-dominated World Bank, and reflects a growing Chinese desire to hold sway in global decision-making institutions.
Given U.S. reticence to afford China the influence that Beijing feels that it deserves, Chinese officials have started to set up alternative frameworks. Although EU countries signed up to the AIIB, further cooperation may be endangered due to the South China Sea dispute.
Foreign affairs ministers from Europe and Asia are scheduled to meet in Luxembourg next week, and we should get a better idea of the state of play following discussions between officials from all 28 EU countries and 21 Asian nations. Among those represented will be China, Vietnam and the Philippines, who are currently locked in a dispute over the South China Sea.
Legal battle to take place in The Hague
Just this week it was announced that a case filed by the Philippines against China would be heard in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The suit was first filed in 2013, but proceedings were boycotted by China.
The court has now ruled that it has jurisdiction in the case and will rule on the matter. Beijing had hoped that the court would decline to rule, allowing it to claim the South China Sea based on history rather than legal precedent.
For its part the Philippines welcomed the move and announced that it was ready to present its case to the tribunal. “Our people can be assured that those representing our country have been continuously preparing for this,” said Abigail Valte, a spokeswoman for President Benigno S. Aquino III of the Philippines.
Tensions in the South China Sea look set to rumble on for the foreseeable future, and its effects ripple out to seemingly unrelated issues such as the trade deal between China and the EU.