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The illusion of European ‘neutrality’ in Asia

Image credit: rosario fiore

Image credit: rosario fiore

In the future, Europeans are likely to face some difficult choices in Asia. They are becoming increasingly dependent on trade with Asia, which includes some of the fastest growing economies in the world. But it is also a region in which there are a number of territorial and maritime disputes – in particular between China and its neighbours – and even discussion about a new arms race. This makes the question of what role Europeans should play in Asian security an increasingly urgent one. In fact, the kind of power the European Union (EU) is in the twenty-first century, and the way it is perceived by other powers around the world, may be determined to a significant extent by the way it responds to Asian security.

The instinct of many Europeans is to retain ‘neutrality’, or to avoid ‘taking sides’, in Asia. Some argue that, although Europeans may have increasing economic interests in Asia, they do not have any substantial stakes in faraway conflicts between various Asian countries over apparently insignificant rocks, shoals and reefs, or even in the emerging strategic competition between China and the United States. They say that, although war in Asia would be disastrous for Europeans in economic terms, there is little that they can or should do about it. Thus Europeans are ‘neutral’ by default, because they do not have the means to be a real player in political and security relations in Asia.

Others, however, believe that European integration can function as an inspiration or even a model for Asia. Some even think Europeans could play some kind of role in mediating between the parties in disputes about territory and other issues. They argue that, to boost Europeans’ chances of success in those roles, they should remain ‘neutral’ on the thorny issues facing the region. In other words, they see Europeans’ ‘neutrality’ as an asset.

The reality is that few in Asia expect Europeans to play a direct military role in any conflict – though the United Kingdom (UK) could be involved more than other EU Member States because of its intelligence sharing arrangements with Australia and the United States through the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ and its security commitment to Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore through the Five Power Defence Arrangements. As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the UK and France would also inevitably play some role in the event of a military conflict in Asia.

However, the argument that Europeans should be ‘neutral’ goes beyond a simple refusal to provide military assistance to Asian powers. The more significant and potentially problematic implication of the idea of European ‘neutrality’ is that Europeans should avoid taking a diplomatic stand by criticising one side or another or by actively supporting one side even in non-military terms. For at least five reasons this idea of European ‘neutrality’ in Asia is an illusion:

Europe’s economic decisions have political and security implications: because of their sheer size as an economic power, Europeans cannot escape the reality that their decisions and actions have political and security and other implications. A case in point is the EU’s embargo on selling arms to China. In the mid-2000s, Europeans dealt with the embargo mainly as an economic matter: although some wanted to lift it, it was not because they wanted to change the military balance in East Asia but rather because they saw the potential to make money. However, they came under strong pressure from the United States (US), Japan and other actors in the region, who urged them to take political and security considerations into account in their policy towards the region. This illustrates the way that, even if they try to remain ‘neutral’, Europeans’ economic weight means they will be seen by Asians as taking sides on political and security issues.

Europe stands for the international rule of law: if Europeans stand for anything, it is the international rule of law. This means territorial and maritime disputes in Asia should be resolved through international law and in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the key piece of international law that deals with maritime disputes. In other words, even if Europeans want to avoid becoming involved in specific disputes between Asian countries, they must at least take a stand on process. But doing so could in practice lead Europeans to take sides on substance. For example, China’s claims to the area within the so-called nine-dash line – in other words almost the entire South China Sea – are based on history rather than UNCLOS or broader international legal norms. Thus a principled insistence on the rule of law could lead to a confrontation with China. This also has to do with the broader issue of the future of regional order in Asia. What look to many Europeans like insignificant rocks, shoals and reefs are actually of huge strategic significance and could determine the future development of the regional order. As the importance of Asia increases, the way in which the regional order evolves will increasingly concern actors outside the region. In particular, it is not in the European interest for Asia to be dominated by China or for the regional order to be characterised by its coercive and assertive actions. The way in which Beijing behaves in the region is often at odds with European values.

‘Neutrality’ may not help avoid conflict: even if Europeans were prepared to abandon their values and reconcile themselves to a new Chinese centric order in Asia and focus on avoiding a conflict that would threaten their economic interests, ‘neutrality’ is not necessarily the best way to do so. In fact, by inadvertently reassuring China that it can act aggressively without consequences, such an approach could actually make conflict more likely. ‘Neutrality’ is not even the best way for Europeans to avoid consequences for themselves. Such a policy would have implications for the Atlantic Alliance – the US would regard such a position of ‘neutrality’ as a betrayal and/or a sign of weakness and respond accordingly – and for relations with other actors in Asia.

Security is increasingly interconnected: whether they like it or not, Europeans cannot remain indifferent to what is taking place in Asia because of the increasing interconnectivity between Europeans and Asians. If Europeans want other powers to support them in their own security issues – for example in the eastern neighbourhood – they need to support others in theirs. In particular, Asian countries such as India and Japan have important economic, energy and security relationships with Russia – which are crucial for European security. These relationships create leverage. But Europeans cannot expect them to use it if Europeans do not also support Asians on their own security issues. The interconnectedness of security in Asia and Europe has been dramatically illustrated by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, given what is taking place in the East and South China seas, Japan and some other countries in Asia have declared they are opposed to changes in the status quo by force or coercion. Europeans do not expect Asians to remain ‘neutral’ between the EU and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. But conversely, Asians expect Europeans to side with those in Asia who oppose any change of status quo by force or coercion.

Asians will not allow Europeans to remain ‘neutral’: in any case, regardless of what they want, others will not in the end allow Europeans to remain ‘neutral’ on Asian security. In particular, China will put pressure on Europeans – and, as EU Member States become increasingly dependent on China, it makes them increasingly vulnerable to being instrumentalised in this way. China could threaten to punish Europeans in all kinds of ways – for example through imposing bans or tariffs on European exports or reducing investment in the EU – if they failed to support China in its disputes with other Asian countries and with the US. Thus there may eventually be a choice between European prosperity – or, more precisely, only short-term economic interests – and Asian security.

It is understandable that Europeans are wary of becoming more involved in Asia’s various territorial, security and political disputes at a time of declining defence and other budgets after protracted engagements in the Middle East. Many Europeans fear the economic, political and security costs associated with deeper engagement in Asian security. But, for the reasons discussed above, the comfortable state of ‘neutrality’ is unsustainable. There may be a cost in taking a stand on Asian security, but in the end the cost of ‘neutrality’ in Asia may be even higher.

Vol. 6, No. 71 (2014)

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