European Union Maintaining Uneasy Maritime Relationship with China, Admiral Says

December 3, 2021 4:11 PM
French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle sets on Feb. 21 2021. French Navy Photo

When the European Union assesses China’s behavior in the South China Sea, the 27 nations see a threat to their security, but they also view Beijing as a partner to combat Indian Ocean pirates, the director general of its military staff said Thursday.

Vice Adm. Hervé Bléjean said the EU realizes it has “to connect with like-minded nations … to counter some activities from the South China Sea to the Black Sea” where China bullies smaller nations and Russia has massed more than 90,000 troops along the Ukrainian border.

Using China’s build-up of the People’s Liberation Army Navy as an example of Beijing as an immediate threat, he added, “every two years the Chinese are producing the tonnage of the French navy” to expand their maritime presence.

Bléjean said that the EU’s new Strategic Compass document, due to be released in March, looks at an expanded maritime role for the union in the Pacific itself.

The document recognizes “the need for a more top-down vision” of security and the analysis takes into account “new threats we will have to face in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

The threats cut across geography and domains from space and cyber to land, sea and air.

“We see very much the leadership of the United States there” in upholding the international rule of law in the South China Sea. One reason the EU is looking more strategically at Pacific Ocean security is that France views itself as “a Pacific Ocean nation,” due to its territorial holdings in the region with more than 1.8 million citizens, Bléjean said.

“There is more traction for more states to go” the Indo-Pacific to demonstrate their commitment with Washington and Tokyo to maintain established international order and protect expanded trading interests with the region. As examples of this stepped up interest, he specifically mentioned the United Kingdom — no longer an EU member — Germany and France’s naval presence.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Bléjean said cooperation among EU nations in policing for piracy in the Indian Ocean is “working pretty well” as member nations have stepped up their naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea.

He said in both the Indian Ocean’s anti-piracy patrols and expanded operations in the Pacific there needed to be more cooperation on missions and aims.

Intelligence sharing “would be very powerful” in meeting those goals and would remove “inconsistencies” in approaches by different EU nations and others like the United States, United Kingdom and Japan.

Bléjean stressed the EU’s primary focus remains on Europe, but remains “very concerned about Russia” and its latest threats in Eastern Europe to Ukraine.

Bléjean said that in the spring Moscow massed forces along the Ukrainian frontier that drew transatlantic attention to a possible invasion as it is doing now, but far less notice was paid to the Kremlin’s simultaneous reinforcement of its military forces in the Baltic and Arctic.

Although Ukraine is seeking NATO membership, Kyiv is not a member of the alliance or the European Union. The United States is considering new arms sales to Ukraine that could include Javelin anti-armor missiles, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, mortars and military advisers.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this week after a meeting with his Russian counterpart, “if Russia decides to pursue confrontation, there will be serious consequences.”

“They are very good chess players,” he said. “We’re attracted by the light.”

Although the EU cut its collective military budget from $14.7 billion to $7.9 billion, Bléjean said, “five years ago we would not see $7.9 billion [being spent] on security.”

He added that members have increased their spending on meeting their individual needs.

The EU also continues to work with NATO on meeting infrastructure needs from ports to airfields and rail lines and highways.

“Military mobility is a NATO concern that only the EU can address” in moving forces and equipment from one area to another, Bléjean said. “It is easier for a migrant to move about than a U.S. soldier.”

Blejean said the reasons for assembling the Strategic Compass document comes down to the capability of the EU to act in meeting new challenges. It also provides a security framework for citizens “in a hybrid landscape.” The document spells out ways to work in partnerships with NATO, Washington, London, the UN and African Union in the future.

One component of working more effectively in partnerships would come in establishing an EU force of 5,000 to respond to crises, like non-combatant civilian evacuations, he said. Blejean said 20 different scenarios are being explored not as to how the force would be used. He added that such a force would give the EU greater flexibility and speed decision-making through advances planning on how to react to threats and challenges.

Under this proposed arrangement, “the EU owns nothing,” Bléjean said.

“The strength of the EU is its integrated approach” in managing a crisis from military options to restoring civil government, he said.

Twenty-one of the 27 EU members are in the alliance.

Bléjean said the United Kingdom will be mentioned in the Strategic Compass. “Security was not part of the Brexit decision,” so this area will be the subject of future negotiations. But “we’re aboard the same ship” when it comes to threats on the continent and in the Indo-Pacific.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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