Are European attitudes towards both China and Taiwan shifting? The article attempts to shed light on this and some of the other aspects in the context of European powers approaching the United Nations over China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.

International pressure is mounting on China over its purported “historical claims” in the South China Sea, the reclamation-militarisation of reefs and shoals, and its attempts to challenge freedom of navigation in the connected water. Three non-claimant States i.e., France, Germany and the UK have knocked on the doors of the United Nations to appraise the United Nations General Assembly that the ‘integrity’ of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) needs to be ‘maintained’ in the South China Sea.

These countries submitted a Note Verbale to the UN which dismisses China’s “historic rights” over the South China Sea waters and that the claim does not comply with provisions of international law and the 1982 UNCLOS. They also expressed concern over non-compliance by China on the 2016 arbitral award in the Philippines vs China case. The Note Verbale further goes on to underline the “importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas, in particular the freedom of navigation and overflight, and of the right of innocent passage enshrined in UNCLOS, including in the South China Sea.”[1] Furthermore, the three signatories are unambiguous in averring that they would “continue to uphold and assert their rights and freedoms as enshrined in UNCLOS and to contribute to promoting co-operation in the region as set out under the Convention.”

Earlier this year in May, Indonesia, another non-claimant state in the South China Sea, through a letter to the United Nations reiterated that the “Nine-Dash line map implying historic rights claim [by China] clearly lacks international legal basis” and as a State Party to 1982 UNCLOS Indonesia has “consistently called for the full compliance toward international law, including UNCLOS 1982. Indonesia hereby declares that it is not bound by any claims made in contravention to international law, including UNCLOS 1982.”[2]

There are at least four reasons for the European powers to approach the United Nations over China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea. First, is about the 1982 UNCLOS which has been signed and ratified by the majority of the countries in the world including China. During a recent debate in the British Parliament on “South China Sea: Freedom of Navigation”, a Member of the Parliament emphasised the importance of the 1982 UNCLOS and clarified the UK position that “freedom of navigation, including innocent passage and overflight applies in the South China Sea regardless of respective sovereignty claims.” Likewise, the French strategy “The security of the Indo-Pacific is a strategic challenge for France,”[3] and Germany’s new policy guidelines on the Indo-Pacific region, titled “Germany-EU-Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together,”[4] are clear indicators of their commitment to uphold the fundamental principle of freedom of maritime and air navigation, guaranteed under the 1982 UNCLOS.

Second, the navies of France and the UK have been subjected to the Chinese ‘restrictive’ regime of freedom of navigation. France was in for a rude shock in 2019 after French frigate Vendemiaire sailed through the Taiwan Strait ostensibly in support of French efforts to preserve freedom of navigation in the region.[5] In response, China disinvited the French delegation from the international naval parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. Likewise, British Royal Navy’s ships have sailed through the South China Sea on several occasions for FONOP operations and the UK government is now debating to deploy its nuclear aircraft carrier to the region in 2021.[6]

Third, there appears to be a tacit support from the European powers for the US’ position on the South China Sea i.e., Secretary of State Michael R Pompeo has emphasised US’ commitment to “stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose “might makes right” in the South China Sea or the wider region.”[7]

Fourth is about Taiwan. The recent incident involving the Czech Senate speaker Milos Vystrcil, who during a speech at Taiwan’s parliament, declared “I am Taiwanese” attracted a Chinese threat to make him pay a “heavy price” for having crossed a “red line” by his visit.[8] This incident caused a storm in the EU. France called the threat ‘unacceptable’ and Germany urged Beijing to show mutual respect. This unprecedented EU support for Taiwan is being viewed by analysts as signalling “European attitudes towards both Taiwan and China are shifting, albeit glacially.” Taiwan has diplomatic relations in the EU only with the Vatican City and the 27-member grouping follows the One China Policy.

It is fair to argue that a high-decibel chorus is growing among States beyond Asia Pacific over the untenable claim of “historic rights” by China in the South China Sea and its aggressive posturing which challenges freedom of navigation.

Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Featured Image Source: Hindustan Times 


[1]“Note Verbale, UK NV No. 162/20, New York, 16 September 2020.” Accessed 18 September 2020. https://www.un.org/Depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/mys_12_12_2019/2020_09_16_GBR_NV_UN_001.pdf   

[2]“In Letter to UN Chief, Indonesia Takes Stand on South China Sea.” Accessed 18 September 2020.  https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/indonesian/unclos-letter-05282020172147.html

[3]“The Security of the Indo-Pacific is a Strategic Challenge for France.” Accessed 19 September 2020. https://www.defense.gouv.fr/layout/set/print/content/download/532754/9176250/version/3/file/France+and+Security+in+the+Indo-Pacific+-+2019.pdf

[4]“Germany – Europe – Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together”: The German Government Adopts Policy Guidelines on the Indo-Pacific Region.” Accessed 19 September 2020.  https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/regionaleschwerpunkte/asien/german-government-policy-guidelines-indo-pacific/2380510

[5]“Great Expectations: ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific Concept.” Accessed 19 September 2020.   https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/great-expectations-asean-and-the-indo-pacific-concept/ 

[6]“UK Carrier Strike Group – Heading for the South China Sea?” Accessed 19 September 2020.  https://www.savetheroyalnavy.org/uk-carrier-strike-group-heading-for-the-south-china-sea/ 

[7] “U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea”. Accessed 19 September 2020).   https://www.state.gov/u-s-position-on-maritime-claims-in-the-south-china-sea/

[8] “As Europe’s China skepticism grows, a glimmer of hope for Taiwan”. Accessed 19 September 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/09/europe-china-scepticism-grows-glimmer-hope-taiwan-200917025404873.html 

Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Honorary Distinguished Fellow with CPPR and associated with our Centre for Strategic Studies. Dr. Sakhuja, a former Indian Navy officer, is also former Director, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He earned his MPhil and PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He specializes in issues of national security and public policy, particularly in the context of ocean affairs, geopolitics, Climate Change, Arctic, Blue Economy and 4th Industrial Revolution Technologies.

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