Europe’s East Asian Dilemma

hans-kudnani-2What do Europeans think about the complex territorial disputes in East Asia such as the one between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (the subject of the latest issue of China Analysis)? As we show in the third edition of the European Foreign Policy Scorecard, Europeans began to speak out on this increasingly important issue in 2012. In one of the first European statements on the subject last September, High Representative Catherine Ashton urged the parties involved in the disputes to “seek peaceful and cooperative solutions in accordance with international law, in particular the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and to clarify the basis for their claims”. But even if EU member states all agreed with Ashton (it’s not yet clear what view most of them take), what would this mean in practice?

The dispute about the group of islands in the East China Sea called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China has sharpened over the last few months. Last September, the Japanese government bought several of the privately-owned islands. In December, Shinzo Abe, who has committed to strengthening Japanese control of the islands, became prime minister. Earlier this month Japan accused China of locking its weapons radar onto one of its destroyers in the East China Sea. As tensions rose, the United States last year also reaffirmed that its security guarantee to Japan included the islands. In fact, such is the danger that the conflict between Japan and China will pull in the US that some such as Gideon Rachman even see parallels between the current dynamic in East Asia and the great-power rivalry in Europe that led to World War I.

Meanwhile clashes in the South China Sea have also escalated in the last two years and the dispute between China and five other countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) is also increasingly becoming part of the strategic rivalry between China and the United States. What began as a territorial dispute took on greater significance in the 1990s after the discovery of oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea as well as fishing and other ocean resources. The Paracel islands (occupied by China) and Spratly islands (occupied by various countries) are also strategically important for China – in particular because they are located between it and the Pacific Ocean. For example, the Paracel islands are crucial in providing air cover for the new Hainan naval base, where China’s aircraft carrier and missile-carrying submarines will be based.

The legal position according to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is that countries can claim a “territorial sea” up to 12 nautical miles (22km) from their shoreline. Beyond that they can claim a 200-mile “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) in which they have the sole rights to resources. When two EEZs collide, UNCLOS calls for an equidistant line between the coasts. However, China claims the whole of the South China Sea – an area that goes well beyond its EEZ and overlaps with the claims of other Asian states. This claim is based on history rather than international law: it believes it has a prior claim to the islands that predates UNCLOS (which was agreed in 1982 and came into force in 1994).

While Europeans want to stay out of these disputes as much as possible, especially as they become more economically dependent on China, they are also committed to a rules-based world and to international law – and of course most EU states are also American allies. This creates somewhat of a dilemma for them. Last July Ashton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said they planned “to work with Asian partners on increasing maritime security based on international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”. (The US has not yet ratified the convention.) But this demand that the disputes should be resolved on the basis of UNCLOS could mean a confrontation with China at some point – for example at the UN, were a crisis to occur. Are Europeans really prepared for such a confrontation?

This blogpost was first published by the ECFR


  1. says

    “This (China’s) claim is based on history rather than international law:”
    Actually, history is legally the most widely recognized basis for such territorial claims.
    Also, the author has oversimplified UNCLOS law: the extent of China’s continental shelf is an equally important determinant.
    Common sense is also permitted a role. The Diaoyus are in sight of China. They are far, far from Japan’s shores.

    • Asean United says

      The scarborough shoal are VERY far from Chinas coast. And so are the Spratlys. Yet China claims them Based on ancient maps from the 12th century when it itself was ruled by the Mongols.