By Premesha Saha
The European Union (EU) is set to push for a closer relationship and stronger presence in the Indo-Pacific, as released in the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said, “If Europe is to become a more active global player, it also needs to focus on the next generation of partnerships.” Besides the Indo-Pacific strategy, the EU is also looking to launch the “Global Gateway” as a scheme to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The EU seems determined to grow on its existing relationships and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region and further cement these ties to finally emerge as a political, economic and security actor in the region.
For long, the EU has just been present as an economic actor in Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific. The strategic and political developments in this region did not fall in its immediate radar. Until last year, the EU had not engaged with the idea of the Indo-Pacific and neither did it define its policy priorities for the region. The reason for this hesitance was that, given the strong economic relationship of some member states of the EU with China, the Union feared that doing so would indicate alignment with the US and would alienate China. Recently, members like Germany, France, and the Netherlands have all started embracing the notion of the Indo-Pacific and are also integrating the Indo-Pacific in their own national security strategies. Therefore, these EU member states have been the driving force behind pushing Brussels to adopt the Indo-Pacific as a strategic concept.
An EU-Indo-Pacific Strategy: Why?
Besides France, which for its overseas territories considered itself as the resident power in the Indo-Pacific region, it was initially very difficult to grab the attention of the other European powers when it came to developments in the Indo-Pacific and how they can impact the European security milieu as well. It was only after Germany released its “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region” in September 2020, soon followed by the Netherlands’ own guidelines along with slowly increasing concerns over China’s rise and its aggressive and expansionist policies in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, Hong Kong, Xinjiang that concerns about the future of the EU-China relations started making imprints in the minds of the policymakers of the other EU member states as well. Additionally, the growing US-China rivalry and how that could negatively impact European interests was one of the factors that could not be taken lightly any longer by Europe.
Besides the above-mentioned factors, there are other imminent issues which the Indo-Pacific region faces that can have an impact on the European countries’ own security interests too, like the potential risks of emerging technologies, ensuring supply chain resilience, and countering disinformation. Europe, as mentioned above, for decades, has just shouldered the responsibility of being present as an economic actor in Asia, a region considered far away, but there is also a growing sense that the tide of international politics has shifted to Asia in general, and the Indo-Pacific in particular, with the economic rise of countries like India, China, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia among others. The EU is feeling the need to play a bigger role in Asia, to bear greater responsibility and to have an impact on the affairs of this region, whose fate is intertwined with that of Europe.
Given Europe has mostly engaged with this region in the trading realm, security of the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) and the safe passage of commercial vessels is an important concern for the EU. Given China’s expansionist tendencies in the Western Pacific and its growing footprints in the Indian Ocean, it is only logical for the EU to think of working alongside other like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region like India, Japan, Australia, and the US in the maritime domain.
Stumbling blocks still exist
Though the China factor is one of the primary reasons for the EU to devise its Indo-Pacific strategy, many still see China as a potential market. According to a survey conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations, ten EU member states from across the continent view the adoption of an Indo-Pacific strategy as a way for Europe to deal with the rising China challenge and also an opportunity to take advantage of all the economic benefits that the Indo-Pacific region offers. On the other hand, for thirteen EU member states, the Indo-Pacific concept is merely seen as a platform to pursue economic interests with the China question taking a backseat. Countries like Belgium, Bulgaria, Latvia, Portugal, and Romania are also ready to define the Indo-Pacific strategy as being at least partly an anti-China tool. Rightly so, the threats posed by a rising China in the regional hotspots such as in the South and East China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait, which may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity, has been mentioned in the EU strategy. But that “multifaceted engagement” will be maintained with China is laid out as well, with pushback on issues of disagreement like human rights violations.
There are also varying opinions on the type of partnership that is to be maintained with the US with regard to the Indo-Pacific. Eleven member states see the adoption of an EU Indo-Pacific strategy as “an assertion of European strategic autonomy”, i.e., Europe “striking out on its own, without the need for the US to support it”. Eight member states regard it as a way of managing the transatlantic alliance—potentially keeping the US engaged as Washington’s focus has always been more on the Pacific, rather than on Europe. To six countries, the launch of an EU Indo-Pacific strategy is part of an explicit effort to align with the US and lend support to it.
This differing stand brings forth the question of whether the EU will perceive the Indo-Pacific from an economic or a strategic vantage point in this strategy.
What is the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy aiming to do?
The EU strategy currently appears to be pointed more towards building on established partnerships and developing new ones with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific to ensure its role and growing presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The EU is seeking new digital partnerships with Japan, South Korea and Singapore, which would enhance cooperation and interoperability on emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence. It further looks to complete and finalise EU trade negotiations with Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand; and resuming trade negotiations and starting investment negotiations with India. The primary objective of this engagement with Indo-Pacific partners is to build more resilient and sustainable global value chains.
There is a willingness to work with Quad partner countries, especially on climate change, technology and vaccines. Besides the platform of the Quad, given how the India-EU relations have been developing notably after the India-EU summit, there is mention of how this India-EU relationship can be given a further push, especially the EU-India digital partnership. The EU-ASEAN relations have also been on a high with the EU recently being given the status of a dialogue partner in the sub-regional organisation. Belief in ASEAN Centrality and how there is a need for further enhancing of the EU-ASEAN partnership, such as supporting the ASEAN Digital Masterplan 2025, has found a mention. The EU has been really keen on forging closer relations in a third region with the help of countries like India and Japan that are, ASEAN, Africa, and South Pacific in areas like connectivity.
Security Dimension in the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy
Given the bloc’s limited joint military capabilities and continued reliability on the US, the military dimension of the security agenda has not been delved deep into. There has been mention of joint exercises, port calls to ensure freedom of navigation and to combat piracy as France and Germany are already getting engaged in joint exercises with the other Indo-Pacific countries. The possibilities of establishing “Maritime Areas of Interest in the Indo-Pacific” and engaging with partners in the region has been hinted at. The EU will aim to explore ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific while boosting Indo-Pacific partners’ capacity to ensure maritime security. Consolidated information sharing with like-minded partner countries in the Indo-Pacific will be encouraged through information fusion centres, including through the Indo-Pacific Regional Information Sharing (IORIS) platform. The EU is set to step up activities with partners under the project Enhancing Security Cooperation in and with Asia (ESIWA), which covers counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, maritime security and crisis management.
The Strategy has carved out a very safe path for the EU where utmost care has been taken to tread along the diplomatic path well. The document does present ample opportunities for countries of the Indo-Pacific region to engage with the EU in various sectors. This will certainly help ensure a certain role for the EU in this challenging region. But at the same time no hard hitting message with regard to the Chinese expansionist tendencies and the US-China ongoing debacle have been put out.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).