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Europe could play bigger role to keep Indo-Pacific region free, analysts say

ESCALATING tensions in the Indo-Pacific region may be pushing the European Union (EU) to pursue maritime deals with the Philippines amid China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea, according to political analysts.

EU commitment to support regional stability is also a sign of insecurity on the bloc’s part after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they added.

“The peace, security, and openness of the South China Sea matters a lot to the economic interests of EU countries,” Don Mclain Gill, who teaches foreign relations at De La Salle University in Manila, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“With the demographic decline in the West, along with constrained economic activities brought by the war in Ukraine, EU countries need alternative sources of economic growth and development,” he added.

EU and Philippine officials have agreed to form a subcommittee on maritime security during their third joint committee meeting in Brussels in June in a bid to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed waterway.

Mr. Gill said the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN), which the Philippines is a member of, is the EU’s third-largest trade partner.

About 40% of the EU’s foreign trade passes through the South China Sea, which is being claimed by China almost in its entirety, he added.

“Given this reality, the stability of the South China Sea matters greatly to the EU,” he said.

He also noted that as China continues to militarize the South China Sea and shifts the regional balance of power in its favor, “it has become more emboldened to operationalize its de facto regional exclusionary policies against extra-regional powers.”

“Such actions from Beijing have the potential of disrupting the flow of international commercial activity that transits through the South China Sea,” he said. “It is in this context that EU counties have been quick in forging their Indo-Pacific strategies with like-minded countries.” 

“It is against this backdrop that the Philippines serves as an important partner of the EU given their mutual adherence to democratic principles and their shared goals of maintaining the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “Manila’s strengthening ties with the US, Japan, and Australia also complement the interests of EU countries.”

On Friday, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said it had spotted at least 48 Chinese fishing vessels near Iroquois Reef, south of gas-rich Recto Bank, and five Chinese Coast Guard and People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels near Sabina Shoal.
These activities prove that China has been aiming to surround the maritime features within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Chester B. Cabalza, founder of the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.
“They are aiming to surround the maritime features within the EEZ of the Philippines. These are part of the Kalayaan Island Group in the province of Palawan,” he said.
He said the presence of Chinese vessels near Sabina Shoal should alarm the government since it’s near the rusted BRP Sierra Madre, which has been serving as an outpost for Philippine troops.
“The worst case scenario is when the decommissioned vessel sinks,” Mr. Cabalza said. “China will possibly take this opportunity to invade Sabina Shoal.”
“We had precedence in the past,” he said, citing the standoff between Philippine and Chinese troops in 2012 at Scarborough Shoal and the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in February 1995.
“To protect our interest in Iroquois Reef near the Recto Bank, our government must advance its interest on joint exploration and other scientific activities with China,” Mr. Cabalza said.

The US, Japan, Australia and the Philippines held their first defense talks as a group in Singapore last month. Some analysts see their ties as a version of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), which is composed of the three foreign powers along with India.

Washington, Manila and Tokyo have also vowed to work as a trio in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, which has also been beset by the conflict between China and self-ruled Taiwan.

“The EU-Philippines partnership will be centered on keeping the Indo-Pacific free, open and stable,” Mr. Gill said.

With the instability caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the “internal inconsistencies” of members like France and Italy, the EU “would rather expand to Asia,” Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher studying at Japan’s Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Japan, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“EU economies have depended on China’s patronization of its products, as well as tourism/education ties from the Chinese middle classes, so the geopolitical struggles have definitely been bad for business on both sides,” he said.

“However, the fact that the EU as a body has been willing to take China to task on the major issues is commendable, even if it clashes with the domestic interests of member states like France,” he added.

Mr. Juliano said the Philippines has an opportunity to build better support at sea, especially since Europe is also in significant need of more partners.

But inconsistencies within the government of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. might not bode well for the Philippine pivot to the West, he said.

“While I can attest to our line offices especially the Department on Foreign Affairs seeking to do adhere to their commitments, I wonder if the ever fractious ruling coalition of Marcos is helping build confidence,” he said.

Mr. Marcos Jr. is seen veering away from the foreign policy of his predecessor Rodrigo R. Duterte, who led a pivot to China in exchange for investment pledges, few of which had materialized. 

In February, Mr. Marcos gave the US access to four more military bases on top of the five existing sites under their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement — a move that has angered China. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza

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