Major European nations are seeking to raise their profile in the Asia-Pacific, with freedom of navigation operations and concern about rising tensions in the South China Sea signalling their desire to remain relevant in the region, analysts say.

“Until a few years ago, European countries preferred to keep a low profile on regional security issues in East Asia, but under the present circumstances there is a new urgency to be involved,” said Frans-Paul van der Putten, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, an independent think tank in the Netherlands.

“Sending warships to the South China Sea can provide European governments with more leverage when it comes to dealing with the US and China on geopolitical matters closer to home. Europe has long been accustomed to being situated between two great powers – the United States and Russia  – but increasingly it is the US-China relationship that defines Europe’s geopolitical position. This creates new dilemmas for European governments, that are under increasing pressure to choose sides.”

Van der Putten’s assessment comes after Britain, France and Germany said in a joint statement late last month that they were “concerned about the situation in the South China Sea, which could lead to insecurity and tension in the region”.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory and has become increasingly assertive in the region (Photo: Xinhua)

They also appealed to all parties involved in territorial disputes in the waters to “take steps and measures that reduce tensions, and contribute to maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability and safety in the region”.

China, which claims most of the South China Sea as its sovereign territory, is engaged in multiple disputes with its neighbours, including Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei. While the United States is not a claimant, it regards the area as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy to contain China’s military expansion in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

In an apparent show of strength and unity, the US and Britain conducted a joint naval drill in the South China Sea in February, while France sailed its naval assault ship Dixmude and a frigate close to the disputed Spratly Islands last year.

Britain is keen to assert freedom of navigation through international waters and alongside its US and Australian allies has been forthright in defending such actions against an increasingly belligerent China. It said last year that it planned to send its new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Asia-Pacific region on its first operational deployment, due in 2021.

Speaking in London last week Major General Su Guanghui, China’s defence attaché to Britain said: “If the US and UK join hands in a challenge or violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China, that would be hostile action.” Vietnam’s foreign ministry spokesman, Le Thi Thu Hang, said on Friday that Hanoi welcomed all activities that aimed to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed waters.

Despite their military cooperation, the US and Europe have their differences on the economic and political fronts. On Thursday, the European Central Bank’s announcement of its biggest package of rate cuts and economic stimulus in three years was met by an angry tweet by US President Donald Trump.

“They are trying, and succeeding, in depreciating the Euro against the VERY strong Dollar, hurting US exports,” he said.

Last month, Trump criticised the French government over its digital services tax, which he said was aimed at US tech companies, and vowed to retaliate by taxing French wine. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said the EU would “respond in kind” if the US imposed any such penalties.

The European Union is also embroiled in a bitter dispute with China over what it sees as the unfair treatment of EU businesses operating in the world’s second-biggest economy. In a paper released earlier in the year, the European Commission urged EU leaders to adopt a 10-point action plan labelling China an “economic competitor” and “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”.

Tensions between Beijing and Berlin escalated this week after German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas met Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong in the German capital on Monday. China’s foreign ministry said it was “strongly dissatisfied” with the meeting, while the Chinese ambassador to Germany said on Wednesday that his opposite number in Beijing had been summoned to answer for it.

Sarah Raine, a consulting senior fellow for geopolitics and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said it was not surprising the EU wanted to be involved in the South China Sea disputes and expand its influence in the region.

“It is a natural consequence of the reality that in Asia the EU is fed up with being treated as little more than a trading partner, and otherwise irrelevant in the big strategic issues of the continent, even though it has a serious stake in them,” she said.

“In engaging more closely in developments in the South China Sea, the leading EU member states are working together to support multilateral solutions to multilateral problems through multilateral partners – in the form of Asean [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] – all within the framework of international law.”