As expected, the European Union made no public mention of the South China Sea issue at the 19th EU-China Summit, hosted in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. In July last year, at the end of the Sino-European gathering in Beijing, the Chinese government refused to sign a joint communiqué because of the European bloc’s support for a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that rejected the Asian giant’s claims to vast portions of waters and reefs in the region.

The EU has always claimed to have major economic interests in the South China Sea, through which one-third of the world’s maritime trade transit.

In his remarks at the end of the summit in Brussels, EU Council President Donald Tusk said the European grouping and China “share a fundamental interest in upholding and strengthening the rules-based international system”. Tusk made in essence a veiled reference to the EU’s legalistic approach to the tense situation in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s territorial demands are challenged by Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Just a week earlier, the Group of Seven advanced economies – which includes Germany, France and Italy, three EU founding members – had expressed concern about the security situation in the East and South China Seas, triggering Beijing’s vibrant protest.

Unlike the G7 club, the EU needed to avoid irritating its Chinese guests. The European bloc and China are in fact working to upgrade their strategic partnership amid growing tensions between many EU countries and the United States under President Donald Trump. In this respect, the South China Sea issue had to be buried under a bunch of carefully drafted and impersonal words at the EU-China summit.

France’s growing activism in the Pacific

At a plenary session of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore on Saturday, however, new French Defense Minister Sylvie Goulard was more explicit than EU top officials in dealing with the South China Sea topic. In line with the EU’s stance, she reiterated the French commitment to a rules-based regional order in East Asia, as well as Paris’ opposition to unilateral changes of the status quo in the region.

France is a Pacific actor, and Goulard emphasized her country’s regular naval presence in the South China Sea. At the Shangri-La forum last year, Goulard’s predecessor, current French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, advanced the idea of routine EU patrol missions in the China Seas to exercise freedom of navigation and fight piracy and illegal trafficking.

Goulard restated Le Drian’s proposal, calling on other EU countries to cooperate with France in naval operations in the Indo-Pacific region. She cited the contribution of the British Royal Navy to the French-led “Jeanne d’Arc” naval task force, which is currently engaged in training and freedom-of-navigation missions in East Asia. Apart from Britain, which is negotiating its exit from the EU, no other European country has so far contributed to Paris’ naval patrols in the South China Sea.

Goulard also said that despite Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris climate accord – which European leaders have strongly criticized – her government expected the United States to maintain a leadership role in the Pacific region.

The Asia-Pacific region is the economic engine of the world, and the trade-oriented EU grouping is concerned that China’s military rise may destabilize the entire area and endanger existing commercial dynamics. The EU members, like many East Asian nations, know well that Washington is the only force capable of deterring Beijing’s pursuit of regional hegemony.

A defining issue for EU-China ties

The EU-China summit in Brussels should have ushered in a new era of cooperation between the two economic powerhouses, built upon their common will to take the global leadership in the fight against climate change. But it did not.

Disagreements over trade, investment and (China’s) steel overproduction have prevented the EU and Beijing from finalizing a joint statement for the second year in a row, evidence that they are not ready yet to work together against global instability in a systematic and coherent way.

All in all, the Sino-European relations will not be defined in the future by such issues as climate change, commerce, the Belt and Road Initiative or human-rights violations. Ultimately, they will depend on how the situation evolves in the China Seas. Should the military scenario worsen there, with Beijing becoming ever more aggressive, the EU would find it difficult not to assume a critical position against the Asian power and question its own strategic cooperation with it.