East China Sea tensions: a wake-up call for Europe?

East China Sea tensions: a wake-up call for Europe?

Sophie Quintin Adalı
Sabers are rattling in the East China Sea over a potentially energy-rich stretch of water. Set in the wider context of an Asian naval build-up, the latest twist in this far away geopolitical dispute must have rung alarm bells in Europe. 

Security developments in the Asia-Pacific region should indeed be of serious concern to the European Union, for in a more interconnected, dependent world, distant maritime disputes and threats inevitably reverberate beyond their geographical confines. 

The competing Sino-Japanese territorial rights’ claims centered on the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands had so far mostly been expressed through sporadic wars of words. However, since China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed area demanding that all aircraft entering the zone submit prior notification, the situation has taken a dangerous military turn. With sizable Japanese, Chinese and American naval assets operating in the area incidents cannot be ruled out.

Beijing’s fait accompli has increased the risk of escalation. Moreover, the move has deepened the sense of insecurity felt by its neighbors, a feeling which Beijing’s discourse of “peaceful rise” had never assuaged. With other Asian states embarked on ambitious naval modernization programs, heating up this geopolitical dispute may well have nudged regional powers towards an actual arms race. 

Taking a wider perspective, naval historian and King’s College professor Geoffrey Till posits that the 21st Century may be “the dawn of a new Columbian age” promising a “profound shift in the naval balance of power” in favor of Asia-Pacific powers if Western navies maintain the current downwards trends in procurement. 

European policy papers routinely argue that the global maritime commons are both a source of opportunities and threats for which the EU as a sea power needs to adjust. The last 10 years have seen the rise of threats on Europe’s maritime periphery and in more distant seas (piracy, territorial disputes, trafficking). Yet the wealthiest economic block continues to rely heavily on American naval power for its own security and safeguarding sea lanes of communications. 

The EU’s naval response to the Somalia piracy crisis (NAVFOR Atalanta) is rightly branded as a successful collective response under the Common Security and Defense Security. But its implementation raises questions regarding European navies’ “Blue Water” capabilities in the context of diminishing defense budgets.

This reality begs the inconvenient question of whether France and the UK, with territories on the far side of the world (Pacific and South Atlantic Oceans) could ultimately rely on a sustained collective naval action if sabers were to rattle. 

With maritime flows representing 90% of the EU’s external trade, it is not an exaggeration to say the seas are its life blood, and therefore pivotal to its security. With hindsight it is hard to explain why the 2003 European Security Strategy, a much vaunted document, mentions maritime security almost as an afterthought (short reference to Somalia piracy). Equally disconcerting is the fact that in 2013 the development of a Maritime Security Strategy is still a work in progress. 

If a common strategic vision is crucial to prepare for future security challenges on 2/3 of the Planet’s surface, in the final analysis maintaining good order at sea requires more than pronouncements. The East China Sea stand-off is a timely reminder.