European militaries ‘will do more to counter assertive China’ in Indo-Pacific

European countries will reinforce their presence in the Indo-Pacific, including increased naval operations, to counter China’s assertive activities in the region, according to the South China Morning Post.

The European Union was “already starting to make its mark in the Indo-Pacific”, said Liselotte Odgaard, a visiting senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, at an event on Monday discussing the EU’s role in the region.

She said the EU would have a general policy line such as opposition to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and support for freedom of navigation, but it could not go further into concrete policy initiatives, which “will be left to groupings of countries to do and that is also what we see increasingly”.

The South China Sea is an important waterway for about US$3 trillion of trade each year – a third of global trade. China claims it has sovereignty over the waters, but is contested by its neighbours, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

China’s island-building and military activities in the South China Sea have raised concerns for the United States and its allies. India is also wary of China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. The EU and some of its members have repeatedly voiced their concerns about Beijing’s island-building and military presence in the disputed South China Sea.

The USA has increased warship and aircraft patrols to ensure a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, while France has been conducting naval operations through the South China Sea. Odgaard said some countries had sent units to join French vessels in recent years to support the EU’s call for international rules for freedom of navigation in the waters.

“This year, for example, Denmark will send a frigate and France will send a carrier group [into the Indo-Pacific],” she said. “So there is a gradual step-up of this effort, which is by a grouping of countries that all agree that we should carry out operations in support of [freedom of navigation in] the South China Sea.”

She said some EU countries should conduct military exercises with India and Japan, “so it won’t be the EU but will be a sufficiently large grouping of countries that the message received will be European and not just individual countries”.

Britain plans to deploy one of its aircraft carriers to the Pacific and is considering establishing a series of new bases in the region. France is discussing the possibility of holding exercises with the Japanese military.