Europe is facing its worst security crises in living memory. To its south, Daesh has filled the Middle East’s power vacuums, driving a refugee crisis that threatens to tear the European Union apart as each nation reacts on its own rather than in the collective interest. To the east, Russia’s flagrant disregard for international norms with its continued actions in Ukraine and recent aggression in Syria further undermine the allusion of a Europe ‘whole and free’. The case for Europe’s once-vaunted ‘soft power’ seems broken by these ‘hard power’ realities collapsing on it. Adding insult to injury, the US presidential election has only reinforced how alone Europe is on these issues, as Americans deal with fierce internal divisions and a populist extremism unlike anything seen in over a century. Against this pessimistic backdrop, there is room for optimism in one of the most unlikely places for Europe: Asia.

Europeans, consumed by their own problems, aren’t thinking as strategically about Asia as Asians are about Europe. Russia’s unchecked actions in Ukraine are being carefully watched as a potential blueprint for China on its own challenge to international rules in the South China Sea. Today, maritime rule of law is the most contentious soft power issue in the Asia-Pacific, and Europe has one of the most under-appreciated roles to play in it. While it’s unrealistic to expect European ships to move beyond the Horn of Africa in significant numbers, the symbolism of having a European contingency, whether through NATO or not, as part of existing operations and planning won’t be lost on Beijing. Unlike Moscow, which seems immune to international opinion or sanctions, Beijing depends very much on remaining part of the international community for sustaining its single-party rule predicated on continued economic growth. China nonetheless seeks to revise international norms according to its authoritarian values by threatening neighbours while flouting international law.

“Europeans aren’t thinking as strategically about Asia as Asians are about Europe”

Given this reality, Europe mustn’t lose sight of the importance of common values and rule of law originating from the region. European nations pioneered the freedom of navigation that now account for just over 98% of all global trade flows. Europe gave birth to maritime rule of law in 1618 when Hugo Grotius conceived of ‘freedom of the seas’ to ensure the world’s oceans remained open and accessible to all for international trade. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia organised Grotius’s argument, and modern maritime trade officially started. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is located in Germany, and Europe has considerable stakes in preserving the rule of law in Asian seas. Without US participation, the EU is the default vanguard of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). There is also geopolitical logic to Europe defending maritime rule of law. Late Yale University professor Nicholas Spykman argued in 1942 that controlling ‘marginal seas’ in coastal areas in Europe and Asia would be prerequisite for sustaining access to Eurasia’s peripheral lands. In post-war Europe, US naval power led NATO in accomplishing this task by controlling the Mediterranean, facilitating the alliance’s focus on deterring Russian land power while successfully implementing the EU’s inception. Today, the Indo-Pacific region has the potential to become a marginal sea embracing the chain of burgeoning liberalism stretching from India to Japan. Spykman foresaw this region emerging as ‘the Asiatic Mediterranean’, a term that is now back in fashion. At a time when China threatens this potential, Europe finds itself in a strong position not only to protect its regional stakes, but also to guide Asia’s liberal stride by leveraging its own experience and values.

Europe’s soft power strategy in the Asiatic Mediterranean should begin by boosting relations with its regional liberal partners Australia, India, South Korea and most importantly Japan, its Asian anchor. Europe already has a military partnership with Japan in the form of the NATO-Japan partnership, and Tokyo’s contributions to NATO include various operational activities ranging from logistical supplies in the Indian Ocean for operations in Afghanistan to joint counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. In 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe called his country ‘a natural partner for NATO’ that shares common ‘responsibility for advancing rule of law in the world’s oceans’.

“Europe gave birth to maritime rule of law, and without the US is the default vanguard of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas”

This stands to be fortuitous year for elevating NATO-Japan relations. For one thing, Japan is increasingly keen on demonstrating its global leadership, as it did in May as host country for this year’s G7 summit. As China’s provocations continue to add volatility to the Asiatic Mediterranean, European G7 members and Japan should use this opportune time to inaugurate a joint regional security initiative, such as a European or NATO Maritime Security Conference in Asia. Such a conference would serve as a ministerial-level dialogue with membership consisting of NATO, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, ASEAN, and eventually China if international norms and rules are accepted. Building a multilateral process with like-minded nations will present a united alternative to China’s unilateralism in the South China Sea, and will make it much more likely that Beijing will choose to be a part of the system than continue its current path. Indeed, because China could significantly benefit from participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Beijing’s compliance with maritime rule of law would be the first step toward the inclusion of the second-largest economy in the emerging multilateral free trade agreement.

There is of course no panacea, and China’s maritime behaviour does not pose physical threats to European or US national security interests as much as Russia or the refugee crisis. Nonetheless, China is ‘eating sticky candy bit by bit’ as Mao Zedong might describe Beijing’s attritional strategy. The invisible casualty is the very existence of maritime rule of law, and 2016 appears to be make-or-break for Europe to preserve and protect international rule of law with its soft power by collaborating with its increasingly willing, proactive Japanese partner and coming together to weather the collective storm.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – U.S. Pacific Fleet