Europe and China’s sea disputes: between normative politics, power balancing and acquiescence

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Series Details Volume 28, Number 4, Pages 473-492
Publication Date December 2019
ISSN 0966-2839 (print) | 1746-1545 (online)
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China’s disputes with its South East Asian neighbours and Japan in the South and East China Seas have emerged as important tests of the implications of China’s rise, posing dilemmas not just for regional states but also for other global actors, including European states and the European Union (EU). European responses to these disputes have pulled in three directions: a normative approach emphasising the resolution of disputes within the framework of international law; a power balancing approach, led by France and the United Kingdom, involving support for freedom of navigation operations and strengthened bilateral and EU ties with other Asian states; and de facto acquiescence to Chinese advances in the region.

In terms of understanding EU foreign policy, this case suggests a sequence: a normative approach as the initial default EU policy; a turn to power balancing when the effectiveness of that policy is called into question, but also the possibility of acquiescence and consequent divisions amongst EU member states. Europe faces dilemmas in balancing support for the United States, Japan and the South-East Asian states with its strategic partnership with China, but in practice European policy is much closer to that of the former group than that of Beijing.

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