The announcement of the U.S. pivot toward Asia, shortly followed by Washington professing its willingness to cooperate with Europe on Asian matters, has forced upon Europeans a series of uneasy, interrelated questions. At issue is Europe’s perception of China, its declining role as a strategic actor in Asia, and its ability to contribute to regional security. To assert their strategic relevance in Asia, and avoid being dragged into a zero-sum game between the United States and China, Europeans—both at EU and national levels—could contribute to, and benefit from, policies that combine the promotion of international law with the provision of assistance to regional states to help modernize their armed forces. At a local level, this could even the playing field between these states and China. Ultimately, by participating more effectively in Asia’s regional security forums, Europe could increase its credibility and strengthen its hand vis-à-vis Beijing.  

Any debate about security in Asia or a strategy for the region is first and foremost a debate about China. This is a subject on which Europeans still do not agree even though Europe’s economic dependence on, and concerns about, Beijing are growing. Europe’s concerns are expressed mostly in economic and political terms—Beijing’s positions on Syria, Iran, and North Korea—rather than security terms. The idea that China is, or may become, directly or indirectly, a security threat to Europe is still seen as a somewhat abstract and justifiably remote possibility. 

Europe is, however, concerned about its place in the broader Asian security balance. The debate about Europe’s role in Asia’s security coincides with declining military capabilities. Only two European countries—France and the United Kingdom—maintain the capacity for power projection, but their respective economic situations will mean that difficult decisions will have to be made if they are to sustain it. 

Europe is feeling increasingly vulnerable to an Asian security situation that it has only very limited and diminishing means to influence—and that affects its relations with Washington. It runs the risk of being perceived as irrelevant and instrumentalized by the United States or China. Europe is not and is unlikely to become a Pacific power, but it is not as impotent as some of its interlocutors—including many Europeans themselves—like to depict it. Nor are its partners, be it China or the United States, devoid of any weaknesses. 

Europe is not altogether absent from Asia. Some of its member states are among the main defense technology providers in the region and significantly contribute to the modernization of Asian countries’ armed forces. For example, France is an important military supplier to India and parts of Southeast Asia. This is hardly ever discussed, partly because the competition for these contracts is largely commercial, not strategic—the European providers themselves are in competition with each other and with their American counterparts, not with China. 

Further, Washington’s demands for a greater European commitment to Asia’s security raises interesting questions regarding the U.S. posture toward an increasingly assertive China on both political and security matters, from the political transition in Burma or North Korea to the South China Sea. More than the issues themselves, some of which have existed for decades, Washington’s demands reflect the U.S. fear of a loss of credibility in the eyes of its regional allies. China is as averse to the risk of a major conflict as the West is, but it understands how to play its military inferiority vis-à-vis the United States to its own advantage. Beijing ensures that its harassing tactics remain below the threshold for U.S. intervention and outside the scope of the defense treaty Washington has signed with some Asian countries. 

The South China Sea in particular presents an interesting example. It illustrates the kind of difficulties the United States is faced with in its relations with Beijing as well as the obstacles any European policy in the region will have to navigate. From a European perspective, focusing on the South China Sea can also provide lessons on the kind of approach to adopt to avoid being strategically marginalized in the region as a whole. 

Freedom of navigation in the area is no less important for Europe than it is for the United States. European trade and investment interests would inevitably be impacted should the tensions in the South China Sea degenerate. Despite European and American vows not to take sides in the various disputes in the area, both have an interest in the perpetuation of the status quo. 

U.S. officials repeat their commitment to the region, but Beijing’s “salami-slicing” strategy makes Washington’s military superiority increasingly irrelevant. The cost of a potential conflict triggered by any of the ongoing crises in the region would be totally disproportionate to the stakes of the dispute. As a senior U.S. military official recently told the Washington Post, “I don’t think that we’d allow the U.S. to get dragged into a conflict over fish or over a rock.” This makes China increasingly difficult to deal with—even if one accepts the idea that it is also reacting to the provocations of some of the South China Sea littoral states. 

This relative impotence has led Washington to develop a multifaceted strategy, involving reaffirming the primacy of international law, encouraging littoral states to resolve their disputes through negotiation, and also mobilizing the littoral states of the South China Sea against Beijing through discreet yet effective provocations—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referring to the contested body of water as the West Philippine Sea, for example. Europe is at risk of being brought into a zero-sum game between the United States and China, which the two main contenders are carefully trying to avoid themselves. 

In such a context, the problem is as much a question of political posture as of capabilities. Europeans have so far been extremely careful not to antagonize the parties, refusing to side with any of the claimants in the various South China Sea disputes. It can hardly remain passive though, as it risks being among the collateral victims if the current tensions were to lead a zero-sum game between China and the United States. 

Europe has to assert its credibility to two major powers, whose opposing attitudes about international law reflect a willingness to turn the situation to their own strategic advantages. Europe would therefore be better off developing a three-pronged approach, taking into account both international norms and strategic realities. 

Systematically call for the respect of international law: The promotion of the international law of the sea has to be part of any European option when dealing with the region. Europe’s voice in this arena is more legitimate than that of the United States, which does not formally recognize the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This framework is widely recognized and therefore a guarantee of neutrality. Developing regional and international support for norms and laws that seek to avoid the use of military action to settle territorial disputes would increase the political costs to China or any other state that contemplates using force to take control of disputed islands or resources.

Transfer military technology to equalize the playing field: The promotion of international law, however, is unlikely to be sufficient. China has ratified UNCLOS but still does not acknowledge the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which amounts to making any dispute resolution a bilateral and totally asymmetrical negotiation in favor of Beijing. This asymmetry de facto eliminates all incentives for China to look for regional consensus, such as the code of conduct ASEAN members are trying to evolve. 

As China is as apprehensive about a major conflict as any other actors, including the United States, a consensus will emerge only if the balance of forces is made more equal at the local level, which would mean the cost of any local conflict for each of the claimants would outweigh its potential benefits. The claimants would thus be fully responsible for their own acts. European states can facilitate this by providing technology and military training.

Establish more effective participation in ASEAN security forums, by both the EU and its member states: By establishing more effective participation in these forums—based on the principles of international law and reinforced by their role as a potential game equalizer—the EU and its member states could bolster ASEAN and help build an effective regional security architecture. This would also make Europe more visible in the security sphere.

Only if Europe is seen as a strategic player, even if clearly not the most important one, will it be able to play a role in the construction of a framework for regional security and therefore contribute to Asia’s security in accordance with its own values. Its main objective should be to reinforce its position in dealings with Beijing. The difficult part for Europe will be becoming more assertive toward China without looking confrontational and, in the process, remaining independent without ignoring its own convergence of interests with the United States.