Last November China declared an air defence identification zone over a large part of the East China Sea that has been at the centre of recent tensions between China, Taiwan and Japan. Like many other world leaders, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton issued a public statement to express her concern, commenting that the Chinese action “heightens the risk of escalation and contributes to raising tensions in the region.” Less than a month later Brussels released another statement, this time in response to the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The visit was seen by many in China, South Korea and elsewhere as a sign of denial of war crimes. A spokesperson for Ms. Ashton referred to Abe’s action as being “not conducive to lowering tensions or to improving relations with Japan’s neighbours.”
These recent proclamations by the European Union demonstrate two things. First, the EU is not afraid to criticise the major Asian powers when it perceives their actions to be harmful to East Asia’s regional stability. And second, the EU is not taking sides with Japan against China or vice versa. On both counts, the EU is reinforcing the trend towards greater outspokenness on Asian affairs that started in the summer of 2012 when Ashton and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released a joint declaration on the need for closer trans-Atlantic co-ordination on security, development, well-being and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. Next came a statement by Ashton alone, expressing concern about “developments” in East Asia’s maritime areas. This largely implicit reference to the islands dispute between China, Taiwan and Japan did not mention any of these actors by name or take a position on their actions. The muted diplomatic tone that characterised these first statements has now been replaced by more explicit language.
These moves should not be discarded as mere wordplay. Official statements do have the potential to influence states’ behaviour and to shape norms of international conflict management. East Asia in particular lacks actors that are sufficiently detached from regional security issues and yet influential enough to sound an independent voice. High Representative Ashton’s public statements are part of an increasingly active EU positioning towards East Asian security affairs. The groundwork for the current approach was laid in June 2012, when European member states agreed on new guidelines for their foreign and security policy towards East Asia. Since then, Ashton has attended several high-level multi-lateral meetings on security issues in the region and has signed the “Treaty on Amity and Co-operation in South-East Asia”, which strengthens the EU’s ties with the Association of Southeast-Asian Nations (ASEAN). During the EU foreign policy chief’s first visit to the ASEAN Secretariat, she also inaugurated an EU-ASEAN Co-operation Office.
The growing activism on the part of the European Union raises the question whether it will speak out in the future also if the United States acts in a way that threatens stability in East Asia. Displaying a preparedness to do so would be the logical next step in becoming an independent player in Asian affairs, and would further strengthen the EU’s image as a neutral but engaged stakeholder in East Asian stability.
Gradually and without attracting much attention the European Union is building a strategy on East Asian security affairs that is more focused and ambitious than it has ever been. Even without a military presence in the region the EU can make a difference. The challenge now is for Brussels to keep up its engagement, develop an independent voice and to uphold a long-term commitment to strengthening stability in the region. Asian governments have not hidden their disappointment with the EU about its rather half-hearted approach in the past decades, but may well be willing to give the EU a second chance – one that should not be wasted.
Photo credit: European External Action Service - EEAS