Europe should take note of the challenge that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi set the United States at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting earlier this month. In remarks to the press, Wang challenged Washington’s advocacy of high seas freedoms by arguing that the “current situation of the South China Sea is generally stable, and the freedom of navigation there has never seen any problems.” The increasingly circuitous nature of this debate suggests that support for the U.S. by third parties such as Europe will be necessary to break the logjam and reinforce a principle that Europe also relies on for its prosperity and security.
What was not apparent in Wang’s remarks is that the dispute between the U.S. and China is not about commercial ships, but military ones. According to Beijing’s interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), military activities within a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – which extends 200 nautical miles seaward from a state’s coastline – are banned. Washington argues that this is a distorted understanding of the law, and is supported in this view by the majority of states worldwide. Only about two dozen countries openly agree with China’s interpretation.