China’s economic statecraft has softened the resolve of some EU member-states and groomed them to advocate Beijing’s position on the South China Sea. The slow erosion of Europe’s values as well as inability to come together and speak with one voice on rule of law contributes to the unraveling fabric of global governance. Beijing’s successful wedge strategy in Europe is the ultimate win without fighting.
China has clearly signaled that it considers the disputes in the South China Sea to be bilateral concerns, not multilateral ones, and warned the European Union on this issue. Ahead of the July 12 ruling of the tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing worked behind the scenes to discredit the tribunal, made efforts to bolster international support for its claims, and vociferously protested after the ruling was announced. In the process, China has paradoxically helped amplify the international dimension of the dispute.
At the G7 meeting in Japan in May, European Council president Donald Tusk declared that the European Union needed to take a “clear and tough stance” on China’s maritime claims. After the G7 statement on maritime security, China’s lobbying activity on individual EU member states intensified. In June 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping made visits to Poland and Croatia. In early July, Greek president Alexis Tsipras flew to Beijing and discussed the issue with senior Chinese officials. Many more contacts were initiated at multiple levels.
Prior to the announcement of the tribunal decision, some analysts envisioned a powerful joint statement between the United States and the European Union to magnify the strength of support for the arbitral tribunal’s decision. Foreseeing this, China’s goal, according to China’s ambassador to the European Union Yang Yanyi, was to neutralize Europe in the South China Sea discussion.
When the ruling of the arbitral tribunal was issued on July 12, it took three days of protracted negotiations for the European Union to hammer out a statement. Contrary to the strong support that analysts looked for, the EU did not “support” or “welcome” the tribunal’s decision, but merely “acknowledged” it. Three EU member-states in particular opposed any strong language in the statement: Greece, Hungary, and Croatia.
Hungary, Greece, and Croatia are on the receiving end of Chinese investments linked to Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative. In addition to China’s economic enticements, Croatia is also involved in a border dispute with Slovenia for which an arbitration award is pending. Croatia expects that that award will be unfavorable to it and is disinclined to call for the enforcement of arbitration rulings. China’s “check-book diplomacy” seems to have reaped dividends with the weak EU statement on the South China Sea decision. And even though only three EU member-states stood out by resisting strong language on China in this case, other member-states that benefit from Chinese investment could play a similar role in future discussions within the European Union.
Legal scholar Peter Dutton, Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, analyzed the EU statement and observed “the EU does not take a position on sovereignty aspects relating to claims.” This is not necessarily the same as the U.S. stance of not taking a position on sovereignty over features—the EU member-states could have made that position, which only applies to the disputed islands, clear in their joint statement. Instead by using the broader term “sovereignty aspects relating to the claims,” the statement of neutrality could be seen as encompassing China’s increasingly apparent claim of sovereignty over waters and seabed, not just land features, in the Spratly Islands.
Second, Dutton pointed out that the EU statement calls on all parties to clarify their claims and to pursue them in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This could only refer to China, since the rest of the coastal states have been crystal clear that they rely entirely on UNCLOS for the description of their maritime zones. Dutton highlighted that the statement leaves room for claims based on international law other than UNCLOS, which China claims and which the tribunal directly and explicitly refuted.
The European Union’s statement was reported by the Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times as “almost the whole of Europe takes a neutral position.” Clearly, China was pleased by the statement.
A day after the EU statement, Hungary published its own statement echoing China’s position that countries should settle disputes “through direct negotiations” and that “external pressure and interference may have an adverse effect on the current situation.” EU statements are meant to represent the views of all member-states, and EU members are therefore not expected to make their own national statements on the same subject so as to speak with one voice. Hungary effectively broke ranks and violated EU discipline to support China. Beijing’s economic statecraft yielded bountiful diplomatic benefits.
In the past, the European Union has carefully danced around the complexity of the South China Sea. It has no interest in antagonizing China, a necessary economic and security partner. But the European Union, being based on the rule of law, needs to uphold the principles of international law or lose credibility. It depends on its relationship with the United States and wishes to have good relations with Japan, a major trade and economic power, as well as with the fast-growing economies of Southeast Asia.
On March 11, Brussels issued a statement taking a public stance in support of the principles of international law in the South China Sea. This short statement irritated Beijing, but some European observers criticized it because “it called out no parties, offered no facts and, far from exerting the diplomatic pressure presumably intended, simply sounded naïve by looking ‘forward to a swift conclusion of the talks on a Code of Conduct.’” The July 15 statement on the tribunal decision was noticeably weaker.
The June 22 joint communication of the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, titled “Elements for a New EU Strategy on China,” exemplified the pre-ruling support for international law. It recognizes the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight for the European Union, given the large volume of international maritime trade passing through the South China Sea, and says that the EU “upholds its position on compliance with international law by China and others” regarding their South China Sea claims. The joint communication further says the European Union should “encourage China to contribute constructively to regional stability” through confidence-building measures and supporting the rules-based order embodied by UNCLOS, its arbitration procedures, and the long-discussed ASEAN-China Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
The European Union’s response to the arbitral tribunal decision was deeply disappointing from an organization that considers itself one of the strongest supporters of international law. As Europe slouches toward pragmatism, rather than upholding its founding principle of a rules-based order, its watered-down and weak statement on the arbitral tribunal decision reminds us that the EU is unable to speak with one voice on important matters related to China.