Tensions on the rise with Chinese defence minister’s visit to Europe China’s Minister of Defence, Wei Fenghe, concluded a trip to four European countries this week, including Nato and EU members. The trip comes on the back of European plans to send warships to the South China Sea for joint exercises with the United States.

Wei’s visit to Serbia, North Macedonia, Hungary and Greece might not have made big headlines in Europe, but its significance is no less substantial.

The trip was triggered because France, Germany and the UK are planning to send a multinational naval task force to the South China Sea to take part in US “Freedom of Navigation” (FON) operations.

“Since the Chinese government would like the rest of the world to treat the South China Sea as if it were a Chinese lake, they are very unhappy about it,” Steve Tsang, Director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African African Studies in London told RFI.

Wei’s visit brought him to Hungary and Greece (both EU+Nato members), North Macedonia (Nato) and Serbia.

‘Good bilateral relations’

Chinese media suggests the visit has nothing to do with the planned FON exercises. “Foreign analysts will tend to relate Wei’s visit to these Nato members’ South China Sea schemes,” says the Global Times, a daily newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In fact, claims the newspaper, Wei’s visit is simply “based on China’s good bilateral relations” with the the four countries “and military exchanges have always been ongoing.”

Yet, a visit to Europe by Chinese military at that level is extremely rare, and Tsang points out it is meant to show that “not all NATO members or EU members support” the planned naval exercises in the South China Sea.”

US accuses China of violating Law of the Sea

The US inaugurated the Freedom of Navigation Program in 1979 to “to safeguard lawful commerce and the global mobility of U.S. forces,” and to fight “excessive maritime claims.”

The 2020 FON report to Congress by the US Department of Defense lists 19 countries making territorial claims outside the 200 nautical miles (370 km) of the “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) as established by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

According to the report, China is guilty of most violations. It counts seven instances, including ‘restricting of foreign aircraft,’ over corresponding Air Defence Identification Zones; ‘criminalisation of surveying and mapping activities’ by foreign ships without prior approval, forbidding ‘innocent passage of foreign military ships’ without prior permission from Beijing.

But the most important violation consist of ‘straight baseline claims,’ where China claims possession of sand reefs and tiny islands in the South China Sea, embedding this into laws, implicating that the 200 Nautical Mile EEZ applies there as well and giving China jurisdiction over an enormous stretch of sea spanning from it’s southern shores all the way to beaches of Brunei and Borneo.

China’s claims are not only disputed by the US, but also by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines – a historic legal battle at the The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 rejected China’s claims, but Beijing flatly countered that China “will not be affected” by the ruling, saying that the award to the Philippines “is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it.”

Conquering mentality

France, Germany, and the UK are sending warships to the Indo-Pacific region. Germany is sending the frigate “Bavaria,” to the area where the US is carrying out its FON operations.

The exercises, first reported by Japan’s Sankei Shibun newspaper, to be conducted on one of Japan’s uninhabited outlying islands, will focus on providing relief efforts during a natural disaster, but could also form the basis for a defence against military attack, the paper suggested.

The joint exercises aim to counter China, which claims Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea, according to Sankei.

“We want to demonstrate our presence to the region and send a message about Japan-France cooperation,” Admiral Pierre Vandier, chief-of-staff of the French navy, told Sankei in a separate interview when he paid a visit to Japan last November.

Vandier, who was appointed France’s navy chief in November, has expressed ‘concern’ about China’s ‘conquering mentality’ in an interview with AFP, warning about the ‘rapid expansion’ of China’s navy.

Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute retorted in China’s hardline Global Times that while France “wants to show its loyalty to Washington,” Paris should evaluate the forces involved, adding that “China is no longer a country that can easily be bullied.”

Inroads in southeastern Europe

The military spat comes in the middle of an already deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Brussels after the EU imposed sanctions on China for its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs, which triggered immediate counter sanctions from Beijing. Earlier on, Brussels had complained about China’s scaling back of democracy in Hong Kong, and there are worries about increasing incursions into Taiwanese airspace by Chinese Air Force jets.

But the ‘weak underbelly’ of Europe is still a place which Beijing can use to show its displeasure with Brussels. Since 2014, China has created a steady foothold there through its “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI.)”

“That is not going to change,” says Tsang, pointing out that BRI efforts there are not very affected by the tit-for-tat sanctions.

“The capacity of China to reach the southern and eastern part of Europe reflects a certain weakness in the EU,” he says, adding that Beijing tends to target EU member states like Hungary “which have gone in a direction of democratic regression,” in particular under the right-wing leadership of Prime Minister Victor Orban.

Examples of this include his government’s decision to arrest opponents, shutting down media, threatening the independence of the judiciary and granting special and not-yet-revoked powers to Orban to manage the Covid-19 crisis.

“The Chinese have been able to take advantage of that, partly because the EU have not been able to engage them well enough to bring them up to the standard of Western Europe,” he says.

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