This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United Kingdom, France and Germany have signed a joint note denouncing China’s claims in the South China Sea, in a sign of growing European interest in the maritime disputes there and China’s militarization of occupied islets.
The three countries together sent a note Wednesday to the United Nations, following in the footsteps of Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States.
Over the past year, those governments have issued diplomatic rebukes, complaints, and rejections of China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, all through the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
“France, Germany and the United Kingdom underline the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas, in particular the freedom of navigation and overflight, and of the right of innocent passage enshrined in the [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea], including in the South China Sea,” the note says.
The three countries also emphasized that “‘historic rights’ over the South China Sea waters do not comply with international law,” and “recall that the arbitral award in the Philippines v. China case dating to 12 July 2016 clearly confirms this point.”
The arbitral award mentioned was a landmark case brought before The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration by the Philippines. That tribunal ultimately struck down virtually all of China’s claims in the South China Sea as unlawful and without basis under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
The note rejects other parts of China’s stance over the disputed waters. It states that artificial islands, such as those created by China in the South China Sea through land reclamation and sand dredging, cannot generate maritime entitlements such as exclusive economic zones under UNCLOS. And it also clarifies that France, Germany and the U.K. don’t recognize China’s grouping of rocks and islets in the Paracels into an archipelago that would generate “straight baselines.” Baselines are imaginary lines connecting the outermost points of the features of archipelago that are meant to circumscribe – and effectively maximize – the territory that belongs to it.
The Paracels are a cluster of rocks and islets in the northern part of the South China Sea and are disputed between China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. The United Kingdom already did not recognize China’s attempt to draw “straight baselines” around its occupied features in the area and performed a freedom of navigation exercise there in 2018.
However, this is the first time France and Germany have explicitly rebuked China’s baselines, as well as China’s “historic rights” position that it insists grants it sovereignty over the waters and rocks spread out over nearly all the South China Sea.
Both of those European nations have recently pushed for further involvement in the Pacific.
France held a high-level trilateral meeting with Australia and India on Sept. 9, and has signed logistics agreement with both countries that allow its forces to access facilities on their island territories, and vice versa.
On Sept. 1, Germany published its first ‘Guideline on the Indo-Pacific,’ updating its policy to reflect growing economic ties to the region and concern over militarized tensions there.
“The Malacca Strait may seem a long way away. But our prosperity and our geopolitical influence in the coming decades will depend not least on how we work together with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region. That, more than anywhere else, is where the shape of the international order of tomorrow will be decided,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a press release earlier this month. “We want to help shape that order – so that it is based on rules and international cooperation, not on the law of the strong.”
The Malacca Strait refers to a critical waterway connecting the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal, in the Indian Ocean. About a quarter of the world’s traded goods and oil passes through the Strait.
China has come under growing international criticism, particularly from the U.S. government, over its conduct in the South China Sea, and but it has continued to send military and government-controlled civilian vessels into the territory of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Indonesia, one country astride the Malacca Strait, castigated China for sending a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship into its waters over the weekend.
At the same time, ship tracking data shows China has sent survey vessels into areas claimed by the Philippines and even into the Philippine exclusive economic zone. The Hai Yang 4 survey vessel operated around Philippine-claimed Macclesfield Bank from Aug. 24 to Sept. 15, and the Dong Fang Hong 3 has been surveying the same area since Sept. 12.
Both are operated directly by the Chinese government. The Jia Geng, another Chinese survey vessel owned by Xiamen University, has been sailing within 150 nautical miles of the Philippine coast since Sept. 13.
Benar News, an RFA-affiliated online news service, reached out to the Philippine government on Tuesday for comment and was told the Department of National Defense would “validate this report.” It was not immediately clear if they had done so.
The U.S. renewed its criticism of China on Thursday. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell – Washington’s top diplomat for East Asia – accused Beijing of “destabilizing territorial revisionism” when he addressed a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Embassy in Manila took aim at recent U.S. criticism in a statement, although it did not explicitly name the United States.
“[A] certain country outside the region is bent on interfering in the disputes in the South China Sea and the COC [Code of Conduct] consultations to serve is own geopolitical agenda. How to resist the interference is crucial for pushing forward the future consultations of COC,” the statement said, referring to negotiations between China and the Southeast Asian bloc on a code that would regulate conduct at sea.