BRUSSELS—The European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on Friday issued a statement on behalf of the bloc on Tuesday’s international panel ruling on the South China Sea, after the bloc’s 28 member states failed to agree a common stance on the issue.
The bloc’s governments have been arguing for the past 72 hours over how to react after the tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines and against China, over claims to the South China Sea.
Three member states—Croatia, Hungary and Greece—repeatedly blocked a statement from the 28 member states on the ruling. Concerns about recognizing the decision of the international panel and worries about hurting economic ties with China both played into the debate, according to diplomats involved in discussions.
In the end, Ms. Mogherini issued a statement which underlined the importance of maintaining international law and settling disputes peacefully and ensuring that freedoms of navigation and overflight at sea are protected.
“The EU does not take a position on sovereignty aspects relating to claims. It expresses the need for the parties to the dispute to resolve it through peaceful means, to clarify their claims and pursue them in respect and in accordance with international law,” the statement said.
“The EU also underlines the fundamental importance of upholding the freedoms, rights and duties established in UNCLOS, in particular the freedoms of navigation and overflight.” UNCLOS is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China has rejected the ruling saying that the tribunal has no legal basis. It claims its position is backed by dozens of countries.
The rift over Tuesday’s ruling was deeply embarrassing for the bloc, which has prioritized its support for international law and the United Nations in most of its foreign policy stances.
It also brought to the fore for the first time the different levels of engagement with China as that country becomes more powerful and assertive in its region.
French Defense Minister Yves Le Drian said last month his government will urge EU countries to ensure their naval forces maintain a “visible” presence in the South China Sea and work to defend the freedom of sea passage in the area.
However, many EU countries are also seeking to deepen economic ties with Beijing at a time of still fragile growth in Europe. Greek diplomats acknowledged they discussed the ruling issue with senior Chinese officials during Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ recent five-day visit to the country.
Write to Laurence Norman at email@example.com