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How can EU support Philippines in South China Sea dispute?

  • China's recent aggression against a Philippine boat has heightened tensions in the maritime dispute between the two countries
  • The EU expresses solidarity with the Philippines despite limited military capability
Update : 02 Apr 2024, 09:00 AM

Last week, China's coast guard shot a water cannon at a Philippine boat on a supply mission to an outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, injuring crew members and damaging the small vessel.

Large Chinese vessels frequently harass Filipino boats near the shoal, which has become a flashpoint in a long-running maritime dispute in the South China Sea between Beijing and Manila.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has warned his government would take "proportionate, deliberate" action against "dangerous attacks by agents of the China coast guard and Chinese maritime militia."

On March 25, after the water cannon assault, Manila lodged its "strongest protest" yet against Beijing and summoned a senior Chinese diplomat.

China claims nearly the entirety of the South China Sea as its territory, despite an international tribunal ruling in 2016 that such claims are unlawful. These territorial tensions are particularly high with the Philippines, as China claims several shoals and reefs that are within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

To back up its claim to Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippines maintains an outpost on a navy transport ship, the Sierra Madre, which is intentionally grounded on the reef, and is manned by a group of marines.

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian responded that Chinese vessels "continue to take resolute measures to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests."

The Chinese embassy in Manila warned the Philippines against "playing with fire."

Europe condemns Chinese aggression

This latest attack has also drawn international outcry. The US reaffirmed an "ironclad commitment" to help defend its long-standing Philippine ally.

The European Union also joined in to condemn China's actions in a strongly worded statement released on March 23.

"The succession of repeated dangerous manoeuvres, blocking and water cannoning" by the Chinese coast guard and maritime militia against Philippine vessels "constituted a dangerous provocation against the Philippines vessels."

"These acts put human lives at risk, undermine regional stability and international norms, and threaten security in the region and beyond," it added.

Eleven European states also issued statements of support for the Philippines and criticized China.

Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, told DW that the recent critical response by the EU and individual member states was "unprecedented," but not "unexpected," as Europe has an important stake in maintaining stability in waterways that are critical to global trade.

What is Europe's status in the South China Sea?

Over the past year, the US has strongly reiterated that it would fulfill its obligation to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if China was to attack the Philippine military.  However, the European position is more opaque.

Since 2022, the Philippines has signed new defense agreements with the EU and the UK, while France is hoping to ink a visiting forces agreement to allow its troops access to Philippine military bases. 

The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have deployed naval warships to the South China Sea for freedom of navigation exercises (FONOPs) in recent years, while Italy is reportedly planning to send its flagship aircraft carrier "Cavour" to the region later this year. 

In mid-March, EU special envoy to the Indo-Pacific region Richard Tibbels said that European states want to conduct port calls and joint naval exercises with the Philippines as part of a plan to have a more coordinated maritime presence "further east in the Indo-Pacific region."

"We really have a strong interest in making sure that freedom of navigation and overflight continues and that the global trading system is not affected by increasing tensions in the region," Tibbels told the Associated Press this month. 

What are Europe's options?

However, the Philippines has no treaty alliance with a European state, while most analysts are skeptical about whether European navies would be able to assist the Southeast Asian country in the event of a conflict with China.  

The EU "does not have enough military means to deter the use of force nor to weigh decisively on the course of events should a conflict erupt in the region," said Mathieu Droin, a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Nonetheless, the EU does have some economic leverage over China and other Southeast Asian states, Droin told DW.

Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, said that tensions in the South China Sea are not just playing out "in the physical domain but also in the cognitive domain."

Vuving is referring to Beijing's so-called "three warfares," which include psychological warfare, public opinion warfare and lawfare.

"While geography disadvantages European countries regarding China's 'people's war at sea,' European countries actually have a large capacity in fighting China's 'three warfares,'" Vuving said. 

Analysts reckon that Europe can deter Beijing by forging closer economic bonds with the Philippines, and by publicly supporting Manila when the Philippines is aggressed by China, as the EU did this week. Both moves can make Beijing more aware of the growing importance of ties with the Philippines for policymakers in Brussels.

On March 18, the EU and the Philippines agreed to resume talks over a free trade agreement that had stalled in 2017 over European complaints about human rights violations committed by the government of then-President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Relations have massively improved since Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the country's former dictator, became president in 2022 and repositioned Manila much closer to the West, after his predecessor's dalliance with Beijing.  

And there appears to be a consensus forming in China that Europeans are being pulled closer into the South China Sea disputes by Manila. 

A recent editorial by Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, published in the Global Times, China's state-run tabloid, claimed that the Philippines is acting as the victim "to sway European countries" and to encourage European and NATO members to "intervene in the dispute."

However, while tensions are heating up, most analysts do not expect a full-scale conflict between China and the Philippines in the foreseeable future.  

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