A coalition of the willing is building in the South China Sea as European powers bolster the United States and its Asian allies’ freedom of navigation operations vis-à-vis China in the hotly contested waterway.
While Europe’s military footprint in the area is still modest, the presence of a growing number of like-minded powers in China’s adjacent waters highlights shared concerns about Beijing’s strategic ambitions for the area.
Europe’s entry also arguably gives greater international legitimacy to Washington’s freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the area, maneuvers China has consistently branded as illegal and a violation of its sovereignty.
The coalition is building steam as the US mounts pressure on China’s wide-reaching claims to the sea and its growing use of maritime militia, often disguised as fishing boats, in so-called “grey zone” coercion tactics against smaller claimant nations.
Analysts believe America’s firming deterrence in the maritime region, articulated in a new Indo-Pacific strategy paper released by the Pentagon, is raising the potential for low-level incidents to spiral into clashes that could spark a wider multinational conflict over the sea.
Britain and France’s recent warship maneuvers in the South China Sea, both strongly condemned by Beijing as “illegal”, have made abundantly clear that they would side with the US over China in any conflict scenario in the flashpoint maritime area.
Germany may also soon dip its toe into the sea’s turbulent waters, with reports circulating that high-level officials are considering to send ships to join US-led freedom of navigation operations to the maritime area.
German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen did not directly mention the South China Sea during an address to a defense university in Beijing last October, but did say shipping lanes should “remain free and not become the object of power projections.”
The German government denied last week an earlier report that it planned to send a warship through the Taiwan Strait, a move that would follow on France’s recent deployment in which German military personnel were on board as observers.
Germany’s potential entry into the maritime contest, which would likely require redeploying ships currently allocated for Nato operations, would inevitably irk China while further stirring its stated anxieties of Western encirclement.
Australia, India and Japan have all recently cooperated with the US in recent South China Sea maneuvers and freedom of navigation operations, and helped with naval capacity-building of smaller aligned regional states like the Philippines.
US-led multilateral exercises are now increasing in scale and frequency in response to Beijing’s recent militarization of the features it controls. It is not clear if recent Chinese provocations, including the ramming and sinking of a Philippine fishing vessel on June 9 at the sea’s contested Reed Bank, are meant as a warning against naval cooperation with the US.
In January, Britain’s Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll joined America’s guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell for an unprecedented six-day-long series of joint exercises in the South China Sea staged to promote “regional security and prosperity.”
The two navies “conducted communication drills, division tactics and personnel exchange designed to address common maritime security priorities, enhance interoperability and develop relationships that will benefit both navies for many years to come,” according to an official readout of the exercises.
In late December, the British conducted trilateral anti-submarine exercises with the US and Japan using its HMS Albion amphibious warship near the contested Paracel Islands, maneuvers clearly aimed at China’s burgeoning submarine capabilities.
The exercises came just months after China accused Britain of “provocative action” by sending the Albion on a voyage close to the Paracel Islands, features claimed by both China and Vietnam.
Britain will next deploy its Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, along with two squadrons of F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighters, to the disputed areas in coming weeks.
London has acknowledged that its rising presence in the sea is complicating its relations with China but there are no signs of backtracking.
In February, UK Finance Minister Philip Hammond admitted in an interview with the BBC, that relations with China have become more “complex” in recent years due to “Chinese concerns about Royal Navy deployments in the South China Sea.”
France, another European power with extensive territorial and maritime interests in the wider Indo-Pacific, has likewise stepped up its presence and moves in the South China Sea.
In April, the French frigate Vendemiaire transited through the Taiwan Straits, a move that prompted China to disinvite Paris from its international naval parade marking the 70 anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N).
Chinese warships shadowed the French frigate during the operation while Beijing sent “stern representations” for what it described as an “illegal” passage in its claimed waters. French Defense Minister Florence Parly responded in May by saying France will continue to sail in the South China Sea at least twice a year.
Both the British and French argue that such transit operations are routine efforts to preserve freedom of navigation in international waters. It’s still not clear if Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse but comparative naval lightweight, will ultimately join the sea fray.
Unlike other European countries such as France and Britain, which still maintain extensive colonial possessions across the Asia-Pacific, Germany has no direct territorial or maritime interests in the region.
As one senior member of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs told this reporter in 2018, “our primary geopolitical concern remains to be Moscow and its growing assertiveness in Eastern Europe.”
The official implied that Germany would think twice before getting involved in Asian maritime disputes. To date, Berlin has kept a safe distance from the territorial tiffs, focusing instead on its booming trade and investment relations with China, now its largest trading partner.
Bilateral trade hit $225.7 billion last year, with China importing hefty amounts of German machinery and technology. Berlin has stood its ground in maintaining those trade ties in the wake of the US-China trade war.
At the same time, Germany’s commercial traffic through the South China Sea is the world’s ninth largest, underscoring Berlin’s interests in freedom of navigation in the waterway. Berlin started to take a more vocal stance on the sea disputes as they started to bubble in 2015.
During a two-day visit to Beijing that year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that Berlin views “territorial dispute in the South China Sea” as a “serious conflict.”
Merkel also said “[w]e wish that the sea trade routes stay free and safe, because they are important for all.” In a jab at Beijing’s resistance to international arbitration of its sea disputes with the Philippines, she said “I am always a bit surprised why in this case multinational courts should not be an option for a solution.”
Perhaps adding insult to injury, Merkel gave as a gift to her Chinese hosts an old map of China drawn by the early 18th century French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville which pictorially challenged Beijing’s “historic” claims to Taiwan and much of the South China Sea.