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USS Abraham Lincoln South China Sea

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The EU & The South China Sea: A Role to Play? – by Peter Solomon | The Risky Shift

07 August 2012

by Peter Solomon | The Risky Shift – The European Union has established a gateway into East Asia’s vast markets through the South China Sea and has developed a role as a player in security issues, albeit minimal. Despite the EU’s current internal focus, the European Union cannot forget about its strategic partnership with Japan and South Korea.

USS Abraham Lincoln South China Sea

he South China Sea contains the second busiest trading route in the world: the Straight of Malacca. Vital to meeting the energy demand of China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, the supply flow through this region is comprised mainly of crude oil, liquefied natural gas, coal, and iron ore. On account of the territorial claim disputes that afflict the South China Sea, several militaries have begun the process of military modernization, namely China, the Philippines and Malaysia. Overall, six nations claim partial or entire territorial rights over the region: China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei. To put in perspective what is at stake for states in the region, a 2006 estimate by the United States Energy Information Administration revealed the South China Sea has proven reserves of 26.7 billion barrels of oil (about the same quantity as Oman, Qatar, Syria, and Yemen’s oil reserves combined) and proven reserves of natural gas amounting to 7.9 trillion cubic meters (about the same quantity as Saudi Arabia or the United States’ reserves). Due to the considerable value of the oil and natural gas, the potential for disagreement is exceptionally high and, therefore, the possibility of conflict over territory in the South China Sea cannot be understated.

Due to the magnitude of trade and investment between the European Union with Japan and South Korea and the great prospects for enhancing the economic relations the EU has a great stake in the security of East Asia. Currently, East Asia is a region home to instability for a host of reasons including a surge in states acquirement of military arms, the looming dissidence between China and Taiwan, and North Korea’s proliferation of nuclear weapons. To put the EU’s economic stake in this region into perspective, about 18.1% (251.5 bn. Euros) of the EU’s exports are destined for East Asia, compared to just 21.4% for Asia as a whole. Additionally, the EU imports about 30.1% (452 bn. Euros) of its goods from East Asia compared to just 34.3% for Asia. It is easy to see that the EU’s mutual reliance on trade with East Asia creates great opportunities, but this reliance also comes with great risk. Therefore, one of the EU’s foreign policy security goals is to promote peace and stability in East Asia.

Currently, China is in the process of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in order to exert Chinese influence in the region. It is no secret that China is building up its power projection capabilities to counter-balance the presence of the United States defense forces in the Western Pacific. Due to Japan and South Korea’s geographical location, any conflict or disruption to stability in East Asia would clearly cause grave concern. The EU’s concern, however, would be in regards to the Europe’s economic stake in the region and the EU’s identity as a normative power. Despite the EU’s promotion of peace and stability in East Asia, the EU’s ability to intervene in security issues in this region is questionable due to the institution’s lack of power projection capabilities in the region. In spite of this, any confrontation in East Asia would have calamitous effects for the EU because of the 27 member state’s economic stake in the region, which consists of about 18.1% (251.5 bn. Euros) of EU exports and 30.1% (452 bn. Euros) of EU imports.

Although a European Union led military exercise would be unlikely in the Western Pacific, the security of the region is critical to Europe’s economy and also the world. Therefore, if a conflict were to occur in the South China Sea it is possible European states would act independently to maintain law and order or to preserve maritime safety in order to safeguard their commercial interests in the region. At the same time it is entirely possible that the EU would engage the region through the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO). Nevertheless, Great Britain and France can still act on their own if it is in their best interests. The British and French both maintain competent navies with power projection capabilities, which includes the ability for Britain and France to deploy their own aircraft carriers.

In the case of a South China Sea conflict, Japan would be directly involved as its tankers transport 70% of Japan’s oil through this region. A confrontation would force Japan’s oil tankers to circumvent a conflict in the South China Sea by navigating around Indonesia into the Pacific Ocean. However, this option would be both expensive and laborious. Additionally, two-thirds of South Korean natural gas is shipped through the South China Sea on its way to the Korean peninsula. In regards to the European Union’s economic interests in East Asia, maritime security is crucial for Europe.

Currently, EU military capabilities consist of 13 Battlegroups, which are “rapid response units” that consist of 1,500 troops each. EU member states rotate the responsibility of provisioning these battalion groups, two of which have always been on stand by since 2007. However, this force has never been deployed and it is difficult to say how the debt crisis will affect the EU’s research and development into new military capabilities. Given the budget cuts and focus on internal issues, the EU will likely continue to place the burden on the United States to maintain the status quo in the Western Pacific region. Additionally, it is important to add that the EU, Japanese, and South Korean goal of promoting peace and maintaining stability in East Asia differs from China’s view of peace and stability. However, with the establishment of a status quo among the EU, Japan, and South Korea it is evidenced that the three countries have a similar foreign policy vision in regards to security.

Whether or not the EU will cooperate in joint military expeditions with Japan or South Korea in the future is unknown. With regard to economics, the EU-Japan and EU-South Korea economic ties are substantial, and significant cooperation in both relationships has led to the emergence of global economic partnerships via Free Trade Agreements with both nations. Through Japan and South Korea, the European Union has established a gateway into East Asia’s vast markets and developed a role as a player in security issues, albeit a minimal role for the time being. Despite the EU’s current internal focus, the European Union cannot forget about strategic partnership with Japan and South Korea.


 (Original version is available at The Risky Shift)

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