Challenges to freedom of the seas and maritime rivalry in Asia

20 Jul 17

By Vice-Admiral Patrick HÉBRARD, Associate researcher, Fondation pour la recherche stratégique, FRS, Paris

(This study was commissioned by the European Parliament's Sub-Committee on Security and Defence)


China’s New Maritime Silk Road policy poses geostrategic challenges and offers some opportunities for the US and its allies in Asia-Pacific. To offset China’s westward focus, the US seeks to create a global alliance strategy with the aim to maintain a balance of power in Eurasia, to avoid a strong Russia-China or China-EU partnership fostered on economic cooperation. For the EU, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative by improving infrastructure may contribute to economic development in neighbouring countries and in Africa but present also risks in terms of unfair economic competition and increased Chinese domination. Furthermore, China’s behaviour in the South China Sea and rebuff of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in July 2016, put the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at risk with possible consequences to freedom of the seas. Increasing relations with China could also affect EU-US relations at a time of China-US tension. To face these challenges, a stronger EU, taking more responsibility in Defence and Security, including inside NATO, is needed.


On 7 September 2013, President Xi Jinping proposed the building of the ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ during his visit to Kazakhstan. The same year, on 3 October, addressing the Indonesian parliament, he proposed the building of a ‘New Maritime Silk Road’. Both are now collectively called ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative. At the Boao Forum on 28 March 2015, China released the ‘Vision and Action on Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ indicating that the OBOR initiative has officially become one of China’s national strategies. According to the Chinese authorities, One Belt refers to the land-based Silk Road, whereas One Road refers to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

At the end of 2014, China set up the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in October and the Silk Road Fund (SRF) in November to sponsor Asian connectivity and development programmes. They function together as complementary wings of Asian development.

China’s OBOR initiative has provoked both positive and negative comments and interpretations internationally. Some observers view it as a grand strategy for extending China’s economic and geopolitical influence into ASEAN, Eurasia and beyond, while others are concerned that OBOR might reshape global economic governance and lead to the rebirth of China’s domination in Asia.

Furthermore, Chinese and foreign media quickly described OBOR as the ‘Chinese version of the Marshall Plan’, and the BRICS Bank, the AIIB, and the Silk Road Fund as key components of that plan. The Belt and Road project is undoubtedly the most important international project that China has embarked on in the last few decades. It aims to stimulate economic development over a vast area covering sub-regions in Asia, Europe and Africa.

Although there has been no official announcement about what countries are covered by the Belt and Road initiative, some official sources point to the involvement of at least 63 countries, including 18 European countries. Particularly relevant for Europe is that the Silk Road ends where the European Union (EU) starts. This massive bloc between the EU and China accounts for 64% of the world’s population and 30% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This study will focus on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In a first part, it analyses the challenges to the freedom of the seas in Asia, giving particular attention to China’s maritime interest sphere. The second part analyses the role of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’, in this context, while the third part is devoted to the United States and its allies’ role in the security policies in the region. From the above, the fourth part describes the effects of the strategic choices made by regional powers and the United States on European Union cooperation, foreign and security policy deployment in the region, noting possible implications on Euro-Atlantic cooperation. The fifth part describes and analyses the legal dimension of disputes in the context of UNCLOS and of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the case of the South China Sea. In the last part, the study proposes some policy options for the EU.

  • Current challenges to the freedom of the seas in Asia
  • The role of the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative
  • The role of the USA and its allies in the security policies in the region
  • Effects on the European Union’s policy in Asia Pacific and on Euro-Atlantic cooperation
  • Consequences of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the case of the South China Sea

Policy options for the EU

China’s OBOR initiative affords both opportunities and risks due to China’s behaviour in the China’s Seas and hidden strategic policy. For the United States, China’s increasing grip on the South and Central Asia is certainly unacceptable, and US President elect Trump’s telephone call to the Taiwanese President seems to show the future way of the US strategy in the area.

The magnitude of OBOR’s impact on the EU's long-term geopolitical, economic and geostrategic interests will also depend on whether the EU responds to OBOR with one voice and coordinated policies.

Relying on a soft power approach with a focus on international law, the EU is not seen as a strong security player, which leaves it with some possibilities to initiate a maritime security governance mechanism and framework that can mitigate the risk of the Asia-Pacific area being affected by Great Power tensions. This should be done, obviously, in close cooperation and coordination with regional countries.

In accordance with the above the policy options for the EU could be the following:

  1. In her foreword to the European Union Global Strategy, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Vice-President of the European Commission states rightly: The purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned. Yet, our citizens and the world need a strong European Union like never before… None of our countries has the strength nor the resources to address these threats and seize the opportunities of our time alone. But as a Union of almost half a billion citizens, our potential is unparalleled… We will deliver on our citizens’ needs and make our partnerships work only if we act together, united… Yes, our interests are indeed common European interests: the only way to serve them is by common means. This is why we have a collective responsibility to make our Union a stronger Union. A fragile world calls for a more confident and responsible European Union, it calls for an outward-and forward-looking European foreign and security policy.’65 Consequently, the first action will be to build a ‘credible Union’, anchored on its shared values if the EU wants to be able to discuss as equals with the Great powers.
  2. EU policy has always promoted international law (UNCLOS) as the basis for maritime governance and cannot accept China’s rebuff of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. That said, the EU must act to avoid a confrontation between China and the USA in the South China Sea, which would have an immediate impact on maritime traffic and world trade. The development of a code of conduct in the South China Sea should be actively pursued and bilateral and multilateral discussions must be encouraged to find an agreement on EEZ delimitations, on fishing and environmental rules and on freedom of navigation in the area, in accordance with the UNCLOS and taking into account the security of China’s strategic nuclear deterrence. Proposing the EU Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) as a basis for discussion could be helpful.
  3. The EU policy towards ASEAN is competing with China’s OBOR project. For ASEAN these increasing ties with other countries are welcomed as they contribute to economic growth in the region  and offer the possibility not to be excessively dependent on its main partner, China, in coherence with ASEAN concept of centrality. As analysed by the High Representative, the EU should intensify its relations with ASEAN, increasing its presence and facilitating progress in ASEAN confidence-building measures.
  4. The evolution of China’s strategy and the situation in the East and South China Sea require constant monitoring. This calls for intelligence gathering by European intelligence agencies for improved awareness and decision-making.
  5. The EU’s interests do not always coincide with those of the United States, and the EU benefits from taking a more independent position on security issues related to Asia. The EU member states must also consider that relations with the US have changed and will continue to evolve. For the USA, the EU is an economic power and a competitor on the world markets. The euro is seen as challenging the dollar’s supremacy and the US strategic priorities have shifted to Asia and the Middle East, as shown by the rebalance of the US military forces66 to these areas. President elect Trump has announced he will give less support and take some distance from its European allies. The EU must strengthen defence and security ties among member states, increase defence efforts and assume a greater role within an ‘obsolete’ NATO.
  6. The US rebalance towards Asia requires Europe to take a greater responsibility for stability in its immediate surroundings, especially in the Mediterranean, in the western Indian Ocean and in Africa. All observers agree to say that operation ATALANTA in the Horn of Africa, is a success. In spite of the difficulty of its mission, operation SOPHIA is saving migrant lives and helps Libya to rebuild its Navy and Coast Guard. A permanent activation of EUROMARFOR, with a European Maritime Force, sailing in the Mediterranean or alongside the West African coasts would offer the necessary means for presence and surveillance at sea, training with foreign navies and crisis prevention, in relation with NATO.
  7. Maritime domain awareness is a prerequisite to maritime security. While the US is developing the MISE (Maritime Information Sharing Environment) and the EU, the CISE, (Common Information Sharing Environment), the South East Asian countries have established the IFC (Information Fusion Centre) in Singapore and India is developing its own system. Connection between the different networks will improve considerably the maritime surveillance and awareness. Furthermore, the EU’s PMAR-MASE67 programme for Eastern and Southern Africa and Indian Ocean is financing a maritime regional IFC in Madagascar with the aim to connect it to Singapore’s IFC.
  8. OBOR opens opportunities for the EU to pursue its geostrategic ambitions68 in Central Asia by deepening the EU-China strategic partnership through cooperation in non-traditional security fields, as decided in 2007 and confirmed in 2015. This could possibly pave the way to EU-Russia reconciliation. It may be advantageous for the EU to consider how its existing policy tools and strategies, such as the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the EU Maritime Security Strategy, could be linked with OBOR and how this strategic alignment could feed into the EU's Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy.
  9. China’s new initiatives will accelerate the growth of its influence in the maritime domain as well as in Asia, Africa and Europe more broadly. An EU proactive approach to closely working with local actors and coordinating actions or programs with China when it is of added value, seems to be the best way to preserve European interests and role. For example, the EU has a real interest in supporting the 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (2050 AIMS) to improve security, tackle IUU and piracy and develop Africa’s economies, and coordinating with Chinese investments in ports and infrastructures.

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