On Saturday, the bloc issued a statement saying it strongly opposed “unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order”.
“Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region. The EU is committed to secure, free and open maritime supply routes in the Indo-Pacific, in full compliance with international law, in particular the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in the interest of all,” the bloc’s spokesperson said in a statement.
The EU reiterated its strong opposition to any unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order.
According to South China Morning Post, the EU also referred to a 2016 ruling by an international arbitration tribunal that declared China’s claim that it had “historical rights” to the South China as invalid. Beijing refused to take part in the lawsuit or accept the decision.
“We urge all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means in accordance with international law, in particular UNCLOS, including its dispute settlement mechanisms. The EU recalls in this regard the Arbitration Award rendered under UNCLOS on 12 July 2016,” the bloc said further.
The EU supports the ASEAN-led process towards an effective, substantive and legally binding Code of Conduct, which should not prejudice the interests of third parties. The EU urges all parties to pursue sincere efforts towards its finalisation.
South China Morning Post further reported that meanwhile, the Philippines repeated its protests over the presence of Chinese boats in its exclusive economic zone.
The Philippine foreign ministry said their maritime officials had observed the “continued unauthorised presence and activities” of Chinese fishing and militia vessels around the disputed Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
In response to the EU statement, the Chinese embassy in Brussels said the Chinese boats were there for “fishing operations” and “sheltering from wind”, adding that “the instability and security risks in the South China Sea mainly come from forces outside the region”.
The EU unveiled its Indo-Pacific Strategy last week, in which it emphasised its interest in free, open and secure maritime supply routes – including the South China Sea where up to a third of the world trade passes through.
EU member states, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, are all considering sending warships to patrol in the waters, following the United States navy’s regular “freedom of navigation” operation in the region.
The relationship between the EU and China has come under strain recently after Brussels sanctioned officials accused of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, prompting retaliatory measures from Beijing.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing’s concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.
Beijing’s rising assertiveness against counter claimants in the East and South Sea has resulted in unprecedented agreement across the Indo-Pacific.