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Dhaka Tribune

EU eyes greater Asia security role amid China tensions

The European Union sent a high-profile delegation to Asia's top security forum and pledged more engagement to preserve regional stability, as the US and China traded diplomatic jabs over Taiwan  

Update : 06 Jun 2023, 06:16 PM

Senior European defense officials used a major summit in Singapore over the weekend to spell out their visions for greater security engagement in the Indo-Pacific amid concerns over China.

Josep Borrell, the European Union's foreign policy chief, told the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's top security forum, that Europe and Asia have a "direct stake" in each other's security.

"We have to work together in order to avoid a confrontation in the region," Borrell told the forum. "Nothing is far away in a globalized world."

As tension grows over Beijing's strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, Europe is seeking to develop a cohesive response.

A potential flashpoint is Taiwan, a self-ruled island which Beijing considers to be Chinese territory that one day will be "reunited" with the mainland. This is a major source of tension between the US and China.

Beijing also claims control of nearly the entire South China Sea, despite an international tribunal ruling that it has no legal basis for most of its claims.

On Saturday, as the forum was underway, the US Indo-Pacific Command announced that a US naval destroyer, the USS Chung-Hoon, was forced to change course to avoid a collision with a Chinese Navy ship during its passage through the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan.

China rejects US meeting, sits down with Europe

China's Defense Minister Li Shangfu warned the forum that any attempt to separate Taiwan from China would be met by a military response without "fearing any adversaries, and regardless of the cost."

Li also bemoaned countries from outside the region "attempting to stir up troubles" by sending their warships on freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea, where Beijing contests territory with several Southeast Asian nations.   

Beijing claims control of nearly the entire South China Sea, despite an international tribunal ruling that it has no legal basis for most of its claims.

Although Li did not meet with his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, the Chinese official did sit down for discussions with European officials, including Borrell and German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius.

The EU foreign policy chief later described the meeting as "constructive" and tweeted that Brussels wants to "continue to develop EU-China relations based on trust and respect of international law."

Borrell also said at the forum that the EU would do more to engage with countries in the region to help preserve stability.

During his address, Borrell stressed that although the EU has maintained a light-touch approach in the past on security issues, he vowed Brussels intends to exert more effort to maintain peace in the region. "You can count on us," he said.

"Engagement is increasing slowly but surely, albeit from a very low starting point," said Felix Heiduk, senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

In Southeast Asia, surveys of "elite" opinion in the region show that the EU is well-trusted to uphold international law and as a security partner, according to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.  

Security cooperation is one of the pillars of a strategic partnership that was ratified in 2020 between the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

The bloc has signed defense agreements with Vietnam, and is currently negotiating partnership and free-trade deals with other countries in the region.

Several European nations, including Germany and France, have engaged in freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, which are seen as a response to China's maritime claims.

German Defense Minister Pistorius announced at the forum that Germany will send a frigate and a supply ship to the South China Sea next year as part of freedom of navigation exercises, following an earlier deployment in 2021.

Rather than being aimed at deterring China, he stressed the exercises are "dedicated to the protection of the rules-based international order that we all signed up to and which we all should benefit from – be it in the Mediterranean, in the Bay of Bengal or in the South China Sea." EU's security role remains limited   

EU's security role remains limited  

Borrell admitted early in his address to the security forum that "Europe is still largely seen as an extra-regional actor with limited impact on the regional security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific or Asia."  

"My core message," he added, "is that the European Union is a reliable security partner. We are not a classic military alliance; we are not a traditional great power throwing its weight around. We don't have the 6th or 7th Fleet to be deployed in the Indo-Pacific."

However, Borrell said that some European countries "have a certain technological capacity that we want to develop in order to become a 'smart enabler,' investing in shared security."

Shada Islam, a Brussels-based commentator on EU affairs, told DW that most Asian countries know that the EU will not become a real security actor, on par with the US or China, "and they don't want that to happen anytime soon."

The EU's value in the region, she added, is its soft security or non-traditional-security credentials, from fighting piracy and illegal fishing to combating climate change and poverty. Indeed, analysts reckon that European engagement can benefit from low-profile and low-controversy form of cooperation.

However, this low profile has limited European involvement in formal security platforms in Asia. The EU was only recently allowed to participate in the annual East Asia Summit (EAS), the Indo-Pacific's premier forum for strategic dialogue.

European officials are also excluded from the Asean Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), a regional-led forum.

The European Union, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom still have pending applications to join, although France and the UK will this year participate in several ADMM-Plus created Experts' Working Groups, which are lower-level platforms for discussion.

Xuechen Chen, an assistant professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern University, London, told DW it's unlikely the EU will join the ADMM-Plus in the short term.

"The EU sees itself as a critical security actor, especially in non-traditional security areas," she said. "However, Asean and its member states still see the EU primarily as a market power and a major economic actor, rather than a security actor in the region."

There is also a problem with representation, further complicating engagement. China and Russia, and potentially India, which have been ADMM-Plus members for years, are opposed to several more Western democracies joining regional frameworks. France and Germany often want to participate individually, but some Asian governments would prefer a centralized European contingent.

"What Asia does not want are dozens of European ministers joining these meetings and complicating the discussions," said Islam.

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