The EU’s role in the security sphere in East Asia remains limited. It is largely inactive on North Korea and embarrassed by the growing maritime disputes in the region.
While Europeans want stability in Asia because of their economic interests in the region, they do not perceive potential instability as a direct threat to European security. As a result, they play only a limited role on East Asian security issues (except, perhaps, in terms of arms sales). In June 2012, the EU released updated guidelines on its foreign and security policy in East Asia. The document basically argued for legal resolution, arbitration of disputes, and humanitarian action, while stressing continued reliance on the US as the main security guarantor.
For China, the most important security issues in its neighbourhood include the North Korean nuclear issue, the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, as well as the territorial conflict with the Philippines. More broadly, China claims a huge maritime domain, which overlaps with that of many other neighbours and would eventually bring China beyond the “first island chain” into the open Pacific and imply a future regional parity with the US. In 2013, in reaction to provocative North Korean actions, China backed a UNSC resolution imposing additional sanctions.
The EU supported these sanctions against North Korea and released statements condemning its nuclear threats, but did not take a stand on maritime disputes in the region. In particular, it did not express a position on China’s restrictive definition of freedom of navigation in its Exclusive Economic Zone. When, in December, China extended the zone into the airspace above the East China Sea, the EU did release a declaration of concern and called on all sides to exercise caution and restraint. The EU–Japan Joint Summit statement also provided some encouragement to Japan in its diplomatic efforts. France and the UK led on East Asian security by deepening security co-operation with Japan, in particular on defence equipment. But, on the whole, Europe remained a spectator in what could emerge as the most important geopolitical competition of the 21st century.