Late last month in February, a group of academics, policy wonks and officials gathered together in Yangon, Myanmar to talk through some solutions to strategic challenges faced by Southeast Asia. I was part of that group. Hundreds of these gatherings on the same or similar themes occur each year. So this meeting, organized by the Washington based German Marshall Fund of the United States (or GMF as they are known) hardly seems worth mentioning.
Except there were a high number of Europeans in the room. Which is odd because they tend to be excluded when geostrategic challenges in Asia are discussed.
Some would say with good reason. Of the European countries, only France and the United Kingdom possess long-range power projection capabilities. Even then, the British have just several small naval facilities in Southeast Asia and the French some bases in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean – all fading legacies from the colonial period. In a region increasingly defined by a rising Chinese power bumping against an established American superpower, why would soft power Europe be deserving of a prominent place at the strategic table?
Actually, a good case can be made for how Europe might matter and may yet play a modest but still meaningful role. That is, if we use a little bit of imagination and turn perceived strategic irrelevance and weakness into strength.
Let’s look squarely at the elephant in the room which is the lack of European strategic and military presence in the region. Of all the great powers – America, China, Japan, Russia and India if we accept the latter as a future great power – Europe has less direct geostrategic interest and weight in the region than the others.
Being last in the line in terms of weight and importance is not normally a good thing. But impartiality, or the appearance of it can be used to one’s advantage. In this setting, it is Europe’s non-existent strategic presence and role which makes the European Union (or individual European countries) better placed than any of these other great powers to sponsor and drive a multilateral effort to condemn all use of force or coercion to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And while we’re at it, European entities can also condemn countries building artificial islands and other structures in disputed waters, and scold any country refusing to justify claims based on international law or submit their claims to international legal bodies. The E.U. is already committed to all these principles. But the E.U. or else individual European countries have not championed these principles with any real conviction, least of all vis-a-vis China.
To be sure, others are already having the same conversation with Beijing, but with little success. The problem is that on every occasion when these criticisms are made of China, the Communist Party reverts to the line that opposition to Chinese claims form part of a wider power play by the U.S. and its allies in an attempt to contain China’s rise. If power politics is a normal and legitimate part of international relations, then China is merely playing the same game as everyone else. To deny China that right, say the Communist Party, is entrenched hypocrisy.
In this context, Europe is in a unique position to publicly pass judgment on the strategic jostling of regional powers in Asia. It has no dispute with countries over territory in the region. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization only applies to Europe, and no European country would ever want to be seen as a lackey or puppet of the Americans – the latter being an accusation aimed at the Japanese and Filipinos by Beijing. For these reasons, it will be difficult for Beijing to accuse Europe of having ulterior motives in opposing Chinese actions in the region.
Moreover, the hunger for organized collective diplomatic resistance to Chinese activities in the region is immense and growing. The problem is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ insistence on unanimity which leads to paralysis because China simply coerces one or two Southeast Asian states to remain silent and on the sidelines. This is why ASEAN can barely bring itself to even name China as the culprit in any of its statements on the South China Sea. Any prospect of a binding Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN is also remote, denying the region an instrument with which to criticize Chinese actions.
Even if such a Code were concluded, China is likely to claim that it is behaving within the boundaries of any such Code even if the rest of the region were in disagreement. In any event, the proposed Code of Conduct excludes Japan and the U.S., denying these two great powers a place inside that institutional tent if the Code ever came into force.
Rather than reliance on a Code that will probably never come into being, and is in any event likely ineffective, a better way to place diplomatic pressure on China would be for Europe to lead a collective chorus against Beijing’s policies and actions. It could formally sponsor a multilateral declaratory policy opposing all these actions, and invite any country with the same concerns to sign on. The U.S., Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and possibly India would jump at the chance. This will place considerable pressure on Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to do the same. Get these countries on board and the pressure on the rest of ASEAN and South Korea will be almost irresistible.
It is likely that China would refuse to put its signature to such an instrument. In refusing, the onus would be on Beijing to justify why it stands outside such commonly accepted declaratory policy. We are not under any illusion that disputes in the region will end because such a common declaratory policy comes into existence. But it will redirect the spotlight on China and its activities, countering Beijing’s approach of deflecting attention away from its ‘changing of facts’ in the South China Sea through the building of artificial islands.
Similarly, if China chooses to sign on to the European sponsored declaratory policy or pact, then its untrustworthiness will be exposed should it continue on its current path. Either way, the objective is to highlight and isolate disruptive behavior, and Europe can assist the region in doing that.
Finally, all of this is eminently compatible with a Europe seeking to emphasize the importance of norms as a complement to hard power. It is certainly worth a try. Nothing has prevented the acceleration of China’s artificial island building program, and Beijing is even appearing to militarize these artificial features if missiles on Woody Island is any indication. Rather than deriding European irrelevance, it is time for the region to be a little more creative and proactive.