France has recently deployed a nuclear-powered attack submarine and two surface ships — an amphibious assault ship and a guided-missile frigate — and will soon join the United States and Japan when they hold freedom of navigation patrol operations in Southeast Asia’s disputed waters.

Germany and the United Kingdom have also set their eyes on the volatile region, with the British Royal Navy’s aircraft carrier steaming toward the South China Sea.

European powers are making a comeback to counter a rising China, which has started to assert its global military power, causing fears not only in the United States but also in Europe.

In the 19th century, European powers partitioned coastal areas in imperial China, humiliating the Qing dynasty. The British, French, German and Portugese controlled territories in China until the Japanese invasion before the Second World War.

China has overtaken Europe’s and Japan’s economies and may surpass the United States by the end of the decade. It aims to become the world’s mightiest army by 2050.

Europe was well aware of these developments. Thus, it agreed to cooperate with the United States to contain China’s meteoric rise.

Two years ago, Europe’s military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), acknowledged for the first time that China poses a threat, not only economically but militarily.

NATO claimed China had developed missiles that could hit European capitals and had also been expanding its influence beyond East Asia and the Pacific region to areas where Europe once ruled, like Africa and Latin America.

China has gained access to military facilities in the Middle East and Central Asia, slowly catching up with US and European presence in these regions.

It has an expanding support base in Djibouti, making it possible for China’s People Liberation Army-Navy to remain in the Gulf to protect its oil supply from pirates. It also has access to a port with a deep harbor in Gwadar in western Pakistan, making India suspicious about its intentions.

In the central Asia region, it has good relations with Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic, allowing it to thwart Islamist militants’ incursions into its western province of Xinjiang.

China has made inroads into South Pacific countries through its checkbook diplomacy, alarming Australia and New Zealand which dominate the tiny atolls and islands.

The military power grab in Myanmar earlier this month may help China expand its interests in the Indian Ocean, after the US and Europe predictably slapped sanctions against the generals.

Myanmar will openly embrace Beijing, which aims to build a pipeline from Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal, which will allow China to pump the fuel it got from the Middle East and bypass the long sea route through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.

Western countries are alarmed over China’s expanding influence not because it could eclipse their own dominance in global affairs, but mainly because of its predatory behavior against smaller states.

It has bullied Southeast Asian states and disregarded civil rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and threatened Taiwan and India.

France, Germany and the United Kingdom’s presence in the South China Sea are signals of the growing involvement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization outside its footprint.

The three European countries together with the United States are the northern Atlantic counterpart of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in the Indo-Pacific region — Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

The 30-member, mostly Western European, alliance has interests in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, the Mediterennean and Africa.

NATO may soon be involved in Southeast Asia as the United States seeks a broader coalition against China.

The US needs a formidable ally to challenge China in the region.
Ned Price, the US State Department’s spokesman, has called on US allies and partners, not only in the region, but also in faraway Europe, to push China back from its unlawful expansion in the South China Sea.

He has expressed deep concern over China’s new coast guard law as it could escalate maritime disputes, fearing Beijing could invoke the legislation to assert claims on the entire sea.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague repudiated China’s nine-dash-line claims on the sea, ruling in favor of the Philippines. China continues to ignore the ruling.

Adopting the tough anti-China policy taken by the Trump administration, US State Secretary Antony Blinken and the National Security Council’s Asia czar Kurt Campbell have pushed for even stronger action against China.

US President Joe Biden’s foreign and security team wanted to set up a larger coalition beyond the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and NATO’s participation to stop China.

But the US would not likely get firm support from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Already divided by loyalties to China and the United States, Asean wanted to remain neutral, refusing to take sides and resisting efforts to transform the bloc into a NATO-like organization.

During the Cold War, Southeast Asia had a counterpart organization, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (Seato), but it died a natural death as many of its members were not Southeast Asian states and the main purpose was to push back the tide of communism in the region.

Invoking its principle of centrality, Asean wanted to remain on the driver’s seat of any political and economic initiative in the region. It favored cooperation to advance regional peace and prosperity rather than create regional tension and instability.

Rodrigo Duterte appeared to subscribe to the Asean principle even if he prefers bilateral engagement than multilateralism.

He is even willing to throw away 70 years of military alliance with the United States to pursue what he claimed is an independent foreign policy that is slightly tilted towards China.

Duterte and his defense chief, Delfin Lorenzana, feared a conflict in the South China Sea might drag the country into the fray.

The Philippines is not only at the center of the disputed sea but there are also US troops, aircraft and ships rotating in the five local bases in the country under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The Philippines only wanted the US to provide military assistance but would not want to share the burden of protecting regional peace and stability by joining patrols in the South China Sea.

If the Philippines really wanted an independent foreign policy, then it must stick close to Asean principles and harness its relations with its neighbors rather than become subservient to China and US interests. The Philippines should stand on its own feet and remain unaligned to both sides.

The Philippines and Asean must be concerned about Europe’s interests in the region and the forays of NATO’s big countries — the UK, France and Germany — into the disputed sea.

It may heighten regional tensions and increase unwanted accidents that could lead to a local conflict, which will be detrimental to the stability and prosperity of the region.

China may harden its policy on the region at the expense of small states if it feels Western states are starting to gang up on it.

There could be a repeat of the Qing dynasty’s humiliation during the second half of the 19th century until the early days of the Republic in the early half of the 20th century.

The region does not need more players from Europe to see to it the waterways are free and open to all.

Asean must resist efforts by both parties for Southeast Asian states to take sides between China and the West.

It must strive to make the South China Sea a zone of peace, prosperity and friendship, and demilitarize it to avoid accidents and miscalculations.

It’s a delicate balancing act but a better way of preserving peace in the region.