Europe ignoring geopolitical flashpoint of South China Sea
by Francesco Guarascio
As sabres rattle in the long-lasting territorial disputes over the South China Sea, now considered by many to be the new Persian Gulf due to its potential reserves of oil and gas, the European Union remains a marginal actor in the region
Diplomatic scuffles among the countries facing the South China Sea are nothing new. China, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam have been in dispute over islands, rocks and reefs for decades with each country having a list of demands. "A spaghetti bowl of claims," as Theresa Fallon of the European Institute for Asian Studies refers to it. The interests at stake provide some explanation. The sea is a key transport route with half of the merchandise leaving and arriving in Asia passing through it. Some 85 per cent of the region's energy resources also pass through these waters. "Whoever controls it can control the future of Japan or Korea, among others," explains Fallon. The sea is also a key source of fish, which is a fundamental component of regional diets, and in the case of China also compensates against its increasingly polluted farmland production.
The potential huge oil and gas reserves recently discovered make the sea even more tempting for the energy-thirsty economies of the region. "By mid-2010, 180 oil and natural gas fields and more than 200 oil-gas-bearing strata had been detected in the South China Sea, with most located at between 500 and 2,000 meters. Though large oil fields have been found in the area, exploitation by Chinese oil drillers seems to have been slow," warns an article in the China's Global Times, a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party. This alleged slow drilling activity may soon become a thing of the past, as China prepares to use a new deep-sea oil rig weighing over 30,000 tons. It is capable of extracting oil at a depth of up to 12,000 meters in the basin.
Against this background, it comes as no surprise that tensions are escalating. Seizures of fishing boats are regularly carried out by patrols claiming to protect maritime borders, despite the fact that these frontiers remain undefined. Increasing militarisation of the region is also a distinctive feature of recent years, as China is flush with foreign money and regional contenders demand a more visible United States presence. "We expect China to increase patrolling activities in the area, risk of armed rows will increase," acknowledges a Taiwanese diplomat. Best selling author Tom Clancy made the South China Sea the theatre of the fiction SSN, where America and China fight the third world war over the control of the oil-rich Spratly Islands.
Fiction aside, pro-war slogans and declarations are on the rise. "Vietnam and the Philippines should mentally prepare for the sounds of cannon," reads a headline in the Global Times. Northern and Southern Vietnamese recently held a rare joint demonstration against China's bullying in the region. "The South China Sea is the future of conflict," is the title of a recent piece of Robert Kaplan in the influential Foreign Policy magazine. China's People's Daily dedicated 325 articles to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea in 2010, compared to an average of one article a year in the two decades between 1980 and 2000. This year's annual session of the National People's Congress, the Chinese Parliament, decided that pupils will learn at school that the South China Sea and its myriad of tiny islands and rocks belong to China. This mounting nationalistic propaganda has own downsides. "Riding this nationalistic tiger will make it more difficult to get rid of," argues Fallon.
There is room for negotiation, but these have so far yielded poor results. The maintenance of the status quo certainly does not help the contenders, but a definitive solution risks leaving many unsatisfied. Therefore, stalling techniques proliferate and claims are deliberately not clarified. How can talks proceed if nothing concrete is actually on the table? China stands accused of delaying any lasting solution, while pushing the other countries of the region into bilateral negotiations, in a form of divide and rule tactics. "This is excellent fodder for journalists, who portray this as China trying to pick off its rival claimants one by one. Obviously, nobody talks about the fact that rival countries have disputes over the same area with each other too," argues a pro-China blogger under the nickname Maitreya Bhakal.
So what is the role of the European Union in all this? Almost none. Europe's distance from the South China Sea is not only a question of geography. Asia is also distant from the hearts and minds of many Europeans. In many southern European countries, protectionist rhetoric depicts Asia as an enemy rather than an opportunity. Debates over Asia are rare on mainstream European media. Worryingly, young Europeans are less and less interested in Asia – as opposed to a trend recorded in America showing the opposite for young people in the US, according to a survey commissioned by the German Marshal Fund think-tank.
The South East China disputes are notably absent from the speeches of European leaders. In recent years, there have been only a few dull official commentaries. "The European Union re-iterated its support for a peaceful resolution of the dispute on the basis of international law," reads a note released by the EU over the South China Sea row during this week's South Korea Nuclear Summit. The lack of interest is almost certainly due to the dominating Eurocentric approach, accentuated by the ongoing eurozone crisis. Perhaps it also owes something to the complexity of the South China Sea's opposing claims. As the former EU ambassador to China Klaus Ebermann puts it "this is even more complex than the European Union machinery".
"As sabres rattle in the long-lasting territorial disputes over the South China Sea, ... European Union remains a marginal actor in the region". But Europe has no sabre to rattle. If you have no sabre how can you rattle it? Even the US, sabre is very weak over such a distance from home. Almost like a penknife more than a sabre. But China has the biggest sabre and can afford not to rattle it. Just to keep it in its sheath.
pmcdonald - London
Britain is bucking this trend.
Philip S-J - Euro Asia Security Forum