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9th Dec 2022

Opinion

The South China Sea should be of concern to Europe

  • The People's Republic of China claims the whole sea area, based on so-called historic rights on a map from 1947 (Photo: Lindsey Burrows)
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Recently, several Chinese coastguard vessels blocked Philippine supply ships en route to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

The French and German ambassadors to the Philippines did issue Twitter-protests. More should be done. What is at stake is the future of maritime multilateralism.

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Unfortunately, right now the South China Sea maritime disputes are perceived by most Europeans as either (too) far away or as part of a complicated power game between China and the US which it is best to stay out of.

That complacent thinking overlooks that the South China Sea will be a make-or-break for global maritime multilateralism; one of the EU's bedrock pillars.

The People's Republic of China claims the whole sea area, based on so-called historic rights on a map from 1947.

The map shows some red dots which covers the full extent of the South China Sea. The red dots make up what is labelled the nine-dash line. In parts of the South China Sea, there are disputed shoals and reefs such as Spratly, Paracels and Pratas.

China claims them all including reefs hundreds of nautical miles away from any Chinese shoreline. Vietnam and Philippines have overlapping claims. Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia are also affected but to a smaller degree.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague stated on 12 July 2016 that there was no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control historically over the key waterway. Thus, it ruled that China's claims to historic rights could not supersede the international law, since China signed up to the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) subsequently.

The Philippines government which had initiated the case, led the legal track slip under Duterte who pursues a bilateral approach to Beijing.

Because of jurisdictional limits, however, the arbitral tribunal did not deal with matters related to territorial sovereignty over the disputed maritime features between the parties. It means there is much more to pursue legally.

Particularly, the EU has the legitimacy to fight this legal battle. The US – unfortunately – never ratified the Law of the Sea, although it abides by it in practice in contrast to China.

What should be done? The EU should put its best legal brains to work with neighbouring countries as Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

The EU should enter renewed lawsuits as Amicus curiae, a friendly legal hand. It has a keen interest in seeing international law applied and that smaller neighbours aren't bullied into de facto settlements.

It should work with Taiwan to make public and analyse the archives of the 1947 naval expedition, which laid claim to the South China Sea. Taiwan holds the archives in Taipei. That would provide a much-needed factual basis for discussing China's claims.

The EU should raise this issue with China during all EU-China consultations.

The bottom line is that the EU only accepts solutions based on international law in the South China Sea. This should be done consistently and methodically poking holes in China's arguments using already existing jurisprudence. There are no historical rights for once.

This is a perfect area for showing European Strategic autonomy in practice on the multilateral Law of the Sea.

If China is allowed unimpeded to break the law of the sea in the South China Sea, think about the repercussions elsewhere. It could ricochet into Europe's High North. In the Arctic, Nordic nations have overlapping claims with Russia which have so far been handed in for legal settlement.

It wouldn't be the first time, where the authoritarian duopoly inspires each other. That would be a world order, nobody wants.

Author bio

Jonas Parello-Plesner is executive director of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in Copenhagen, and senior non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington DC, and has been sailing through the South China Sea with a naval mission.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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