Tensions surrounding the South China Sea have continued to bubble as the European Union announced it would step up its naval visits to the lucrative waters, while possibly engaging in joint military training operations. Those exercises, an EU official claimed, would “promote freedom of navigation and respect for international law” — something critics in the West believe China routinely ignores. And for Dr Bec Strating, an associate professor of politics and international relations for La Trobe University Bundoora, believes the US views China comparably to Russia when it comes to the South China Sea, and so will be even more focused on Beijing’s actions in the region, as well as its relationship with Washington-backed ally Taiwan.
The professor compared the feud over the South China Sea, which has numerous countries stake a claim to the waters, often dubbed the world’s most expensive, to that of Russia’s ongoing conflict with Ukraine.
The European Union has an important claim in both disputes, and Richard Tibbels, the EU special envoy to the Indo-Pacific Region — which counts among its locale the South China Sea — said the bloc was ready to give satellite surveillance equipment to nations such as the Philippines to help them deal with the threat of Beijing, and natural disasters.
“We really have a strong interest in making sure that freedom of navigation and overflight continues and that the global trading system is not affected by increasing tensions in the region,” Mr Tibbels said when interviewed this month in Manila.
He added: “We will be trying to step up our naval presence… we will be trying to encourage and coordinate our member states to continue such naval visits even joint exercises should that be possible.”
Another of the EU’s interests lies inside its own continent, where thousands have died as the bloody war between Russia and Ukraine continues, with no tangible end in sight.
And the scenes have been linked by Dr Strating, who said US leaders and analysts “have compared China’s actions in the South China Sea with Russia’s actions in Ukraine”.
Speaking exclusively to Express.co.uk, Dr Strating said: “The rhetoric suggests both China and Russia are altering the ‘status quo’ in a way that challenges the so-called ‘international rules-based order’. The rhetoric suggests they share in common the desire to be ‘revisionist’ powers. The rhetoric has also noted growing ties between China and Russia as cause for concern, especially Beijing’s support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
“These narratives linking the South China Sea and Ukraine are not necessarily new — narratives like this have been around since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“But I think the primary area of comparison has tended to between Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Beijing’s possible action and intentions towards Taiwan.”
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China’s relationship with Taiwan is complex. Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory and wants to bring it back under its control, despite protestations from the nation itself, and allies such as the US.
The EU, Mr Tibbels said, was also in line with Taiwan’s desire to keep its sovereignty, warning about the global consequences to the trade were the dispute to depend.
He added: “We’re talking to our like-minded partners. We want to be prepared. We want to work out what would need to be done in case of increasing tensions and that’s quite a work going on behind the scenes. But I think you can obviously count on the reaction of like-minded partners being robust should untoward developments happen.”
More recently, Beijing was left furious at the newly agreed pact between Britain, Australia and Washington as the Aukus pact was confirmed. The pact will see the three nations team up on a submarine initiative, sharing vital resources to protect the waters.
Fears of conflict between China and the global powerhouses of the West have rumbled for decades. The likes of Georgetown University’s professor Oriana Skylar Mastro have described the carnage that could happen were war to break out.
She told the Council of Foreign Relations in 2021 that “there are some factors that show if China cannot achieve its goals, de facto control of the South China waters, it could escalate”.
The professor added: “The US could act more assertively, leading to aggression on the part of China. It’s possible that China will come to the conclusion that the diplomatic way of dealing with the situation isn’t working.
“Couple that with new power projection capabilities, military power for the first time… lastly, you could see China taking military action, such as seizing islands of kinetic action against US vessels in the South China Sea waters.”