Academic journal article China Perspectives

The European Union and the Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army Navy: The Limits of Europe's Strategic Irrelevance

Academic journal article China Perspectives

The European Union and the Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army Navy: The Limits of Europe's Strategic Irrelevance

Article excerpt

Since 2008, European academics have pointed out a lack of substance in the European Union (EU)-People's Republic of China (PRC) "com- prehensive strategic partnership."(1)Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has proposed his definition of the concept as a "long-term" and "stable" rela- tionship "transcending the differences in ideology and social system" so that it is "not subjected to the impact of individual events that occur from time to time."(2) From an EU perspective, by contrast, a strategic relation- ship generally entails cooperation beyond purely bilateral issues, to include joint action to maintain international peace, security, and global gover- nance.(3)China's reluctance to develop a security relationship with the EU has led to introspective analyses on Europe's weakness as a security actor, depicting China as not taking the EU as a relevant strategic partner and preferring to put narrow economic and technological objectives at the top of its EU agenda, while Beijing deals with the US more seriously on issues of international security. This view is currently widely shared in European foreign policy circles.

Through an assessment of how the modernisation of the People's Liber- ation Army Navy (PLAN) impacts Europe's foreign and security policy in- terests, this article proposes a nuanced perspective of the EU's irrelevance as a security actor in maritime East Asia. Beijing rejects the idea of Euro- pean involvement in the maritime territorial disputes that undermine re- gional security, and resists European attempts to include discussions on Asian security matters on the agenda of EU-China meetings. Chinese aca- demics generally consider Europe not to be a legitimate security actor in East Asia.(4)

This article argues that, despite Chinese assertions to the contrary, the PRC's naval modernisation intersects with the EU's foreign and security policy interests in five main areas:

(1) the international Law of the Sea;

(2) the risks for Europe of being dragged into an Asian maritime conflict and the safety of European trade with Asian partners;

(3) Europe's competitiveness on international markets for naval military systems;

(4) the potential for maritime security cooperation against non-tradi- tional threats;

(5) the arms embargo issue and the question of naval technology trans- fers to China.

So far Europe has only addressed two of these issues: the arms embargo and the prospects for maritime security cooperation with the PLAN. The three other issues have been ignored, probably because the EU's foreign policy systematically focuses on cooperation, engagement, and trade, and downplays security and military issues and the long-term evolution of the global balance of power, which is typically seen as being the preserve of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization despite French attempts to define a European Security Policy. As a result, none of the main pillars of the EU's policy towards China addresses the impact of China's military modernisa- tion on Asian regional security, the international order, and European secu- rity interests.

For purposes of background, the first section of this article describes the current EU approach towards China's military modernisation. The second section, through an analysis based on equipment and technology produc- tion and acquisition, argues that the modernisation of the PLAN is under- pinned by the pursuit of a bastion strategy and discusses the implications for Europe of security turbulence in China's maritime periphery. The third section turns to the major contribution of European firms to the moderni- sation of the PLAN through naval technology transfers. The article then ad- dresses the prospects for maritime security cooperation between Europe and China through the case study of the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, and the upcoming Europe/China competition on export markets for naval technologies. In the fifth section, the article argues that the EU embargo on arms sales to China is unlikely to be lifted, primarily as a result of the transatlantic partnership. …

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