MANILA, Philippines (AP) — An EU official said Wednesday that the EU plans to increase naval visits and possibly conduct joint military training exercises in the disputed South China Sea to promote freedom of navigation and respect for international law.
As tensions in the disputed waterway between China and its smaller neighbors rise, EU special envoy to the Indo-Pacific region Richard Tibbels said the EU is ready to provide satellite surveillance to help countries like the Philippines respond to natural disasters and protect their interests.
The outreach is part of a 2021 EU strategy to focus its actions in the Indo-Pacific to contribute to regional security in the face of increased geopolitical competition. Tibbels stated that the long-term engagement would be based on shared values, such as a commitment to respect democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
“We really have a strong interest in ensuring that freedom of navigation and overflight continues and that the global trading system is not harmed by rising tensions in the region,” Tibbels said in an interview with The Associated Press in Manila, where he met with Philippine foreign, defense, and coast guard officials.
The South China Sea handles roughly 40% of the EU’s foreign trade, making stability a top priority.
“We will try to increase our naval presence,” Tibbels said when asked what steps the EU was willing to take to help uphold freedom of movement and international law in the disputed waters, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In recent years, some European countries, including Germany, have deployed warships in the region.
“We will try to encourage and coordinate our member states to continue such naval visits and, if possible, joint exercises,” he said. Such deployments would be “relatively modest,” but given the capabilities of the bloc’s member states, he believes they could be done on a regular basis.
The US military has sent aircraft carriers, warships, and fighter jets on regular patrols to challenge China’s expansive territorial claims, which has enraged Beijing.
A similar coordinated EU naval presence has been organized in the northwestern Indian Ocean to promote freedom of navigation and deter pirate attacks on commercial shipping. The effort could be expanded eastward in the future, closer to Asia “as member states’ naval capabilities allow,” Tibbels said.
Tibbels reiterated the EU’s support for ASEAN’s efforts to negotiate “an acceptable code of conduct” with China in order to prevent long-simmering territorial conflicts from escalating into armed confrontations.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei, as well as China and Taiwan, have long been locked in a tense territorial standoff in the South China Sea, which straddles some of the world’s busiest sea lanes and is thought to be home to significant undersea oil and gas deposits.
Tibbels also addressed concerns about tensions between China and Taiwan, saying the EU has repeatedly warned about the massive disruption to the global trading system, including to China, if the situation in the Taiwan Strait spirals out of control.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory, which it intends to seize by force if necessary. Top US officers have called for increased preparations, stating in memos and congressional testimony that China sees a narrowing window of opportunity and may move on Taiwan within the next few years.
“We’re speaking with our like-minded partners. We want to be ready. “We want to figure out what needs to be done if tensions rise, and there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes,” Tibbels said.
“But I think you can obviously count on a robust reaction from like-minded partners if untoward developments occur,” Tibbels said, without elaborating.