Opinion

EU quiet as trouble brews in Asia

18.09.12 @ 15:20

  1. By Gauri Khandekar

BRUSSELS - As tensions rise between Asia’s economic giants, China and Japan, over a small group of uninhabited mini-islands in the East China Sea, reaction from the EU remains conspicuous by its absence.

  • At the EU-China Summit this week, the EU can make amends by holding comprehensive discussions with China on the issue (Photo: Colin Thompson)

The world’s second and third largest economies are at loggerheads over an unresolved territorial dispute involving the Senkaku (in Japanese) or Diaoyu (in Chinese) islands in the East China Sea. Ships from both countries are encircling the islets attempting to assert their sovereignty. Rising tensions have raised the possibility of conflict in East Asia amidst the ongoing exchange of threats and warnings. However, there has been no reaction from the EU. This is despiteChina and Japan being two of the EU’s ten strategic partners as well as key trading nations.

The archipelago, consisting of five islands and three reefs, is currently under Japan’s administrative control and has a total surface area of around 7 km sq. But it lies in an area rich with hydrocarbon and marine resources. Trouble broke out when Japan claimed earlier this month to have purchased three islands from a private Japanese owner for 26 million USD. China reacted by sending over two patrol ships. A further six Chinese surveillance vessels have been dispatched to the area where Japanese coast guards already maintain presence. Both nations claim they are patrolling sovereign territory.

The longstanding dispute to which Taiwan is also party (called Diaoyutai Islands by Taipei) has caused large scale protests in all countries involved. Rising nationalism is perhaps the biggest source of escalating tensions. the dispute has now become a dangerous ‘prestige issue’. As elections loom in Japan, and a once-in-a-decade leadership transition takes place next month in China, leaders from both countries have come under enormous pressure.

Maritime disputes in East Asia, including the famous South China Sea dispute, have remained unresolved for a long time. While dispute resolution remains desirable, quick fix solutions like the purchase of these islands are not only unrealistic, they can also be potentially dangerous for the entire region.

A real crisis could also hold catastrophic consequences for the EU and international commerce at large.

For the moment, the likelihood of a full blown armed conflict remains distant as both economies are highly interdependent. Japan is China’s third largest trading partner and China Japan’s largest, with bilateral trade standing around 340 billion USD. The real danger is if trade wars were to break out. Asian stocks have already recorded a noticeable fall, which struggling European economies can simply not afford.

The EU has remained relatively quiet, making its engagement with the region look rhetorical and unconvincing. EU high representative Catherine Ashton may have made a good effort with Asia this year (five visits including attending the ASEAN Regional Forum after a two-year gap), but consistency will be a key factor in determining the EU's political relations with Asia.

The recent shift in US policy (including military presence) towards Asia has been followed by a lot of debate in Brussels about the EU enhancing its own engagement in the region and exploring a possible transatlantic partnership focussed on Asia.

Earlier in July, an EU-US joint statement called for greater coordination of their efforts in the Asia-Pacific on security, development and trade issues. But maintaining visibility will be a key prerequisite for any substantial EU role in Asia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her number two, Kurt Campbell, have both called for the two nations to solve their dispute bilaterally and peacefully. But while levels of interest in Asia have certainly risen within EU circles in Brussels, a similar response remains missing from EU high offices.

At the EU-China Summit this week, the EU can make amends by holding comprehensive discussions with China on this issue and urging both parties to intensify dialogue, de-escalate tensions and perhaps orchestrate a synchronized retreat.

A communication hotline between China and Japan to this extent would be beneficial. As East Asian geopolitics become increasingly significant for the rest of the world, the EU cannot afford to remain detached. Asia is not only the fastest growing economic region, but is deeply integrated in economic, if non-institutional, terms. It also contains some of the world’s most volatile security hotspots. Any conflict in this region could have deep implications for the EU which is a significant trading partner and the largest investor in Asia. The EU can become a harbinger of peace by engaging its Asian partners in conflict management in the region but visibility must be ensured as a first step.

Gauri Khandekar is Researcher at FRIDE, and head of its Agora Asia-Europe programme.