Can Beijing use lessons learned by Europe to ease South China Sea tensions?



The head of a Beijing-funded think tank says China can benefit from Europe’s experience in settling maritime disputes as it seeks to reduce tensions in the South China Sea, but experts say a copycat approach will not work.

Speaking at the EU-China Experts’ Seminar on Maritime Security at the end of last month, Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCS), said that the European Union’s success in establishing cooperative mechanisms could provide a model for China to follow.

“The EU and European nations have successful practices on maritime governance and have accumulated rich experience in building cooperative mechanisms in the Mediterranean, Baltic, North and Black seas, which China could learn from,” he said in his opening address at the event in southern China’s island province of Hainan.

Despite their differences of opinion on some maritime issues, China and Europe were not in conflict and greater cooperation was good for regional stability, he said.

About 40 experts and officials attended the event, which was jointly organised by the NISCS and the EU. Its purpose was to discuss issues related to marine environmental protection, regional cooperation on maritime security, law enforcement at sea, international ocean governance and the protection of critical maritime infrastructure, the EU said in a statement.

While China claims about 90 per cent of the South China Sea it is locked in multiple territorial disputes in the resource-rich waterway.

Tensions flared recently between Vietnam and China over exploration rights close to Vanguard Reef, which Hanoi claims as its sovereign territory, while Beijing has also been involved in long-running disputes with Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

Besides the territorial claims, the United States and other nations have stepped up their so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea in response to Beijing’s increasingly assertive posturing in the region.

NISCS director Yang Li said China was keen to learn how the EU handled issues such as protecting the marine environment and conserving fishery resources.

But Valerie Niquet, head of the Asia programme at the Foundation for Strategic Research, France’s leading think tank on defence and security issues, said the biggest obstacle to easing tensions in the South China Sea was the lack of trust.

“Maritime disputes in Europe can be resolved not so much because of institutional mechanisms but because there is a will to solve them among European countries,” she said.

“The situation is different in Asia where, for the People’s Republic of China, territorial issues, including maritime territory are defined as core interests and related to the legitimacy of the regime.”

In the late 1960s, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands appealed to the International Court of Justice to resolve their competing claims over the North Sea Continental Shelf. The ruling was accepted and provided a benchmark for future dispute settlement.

In contrast, in 2016, after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against Beijing’s claim to an area of the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in the waters would not be affected by the verdict.

Henning Jessen, an associate professor of maritime law and policy at the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden, said the existing EU mechanisms could not be applied to China, as Beijing and its rival claimants had to develop their own solutions.

“The EU can only act as an honest mediator in the South China Sea and as a reference to the fact that constant political dialogue and regional negotiations are probably the best diplomatic tools available,” he said.

The idea of a code of conduct – an idea that China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been discussing for several years – was “probably the best way forward”, he said.

“The idea is to take these expert views as a starting point and then to translate them to the political level via regional negotiations,” Jessen said.

“In my personal view, this is the most promising approach to reduce the political tension in the region.”

But Pooja Bhatt, a researcher at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, said she welcomed Wu’s suggestion that Beijing was willing to learn from the EU on resolving maritime disputes.

“China has to accept maritime issues as common interests, cooperate with its neighbours as partners and participate more in regional and international dispute settlement mechanisms,” she said.