The Indo-Pacific region, the vast land-maritime space stretching from eastern Africa to western Pacific, has acquired striking salience with the U.S.-China strategic contestation becoming sharper than before. Speedy development of the Quad – a special partnership of Australia, Japan, India and the U.S. – the emergence of AUKUS – a new security alliance of Australia, UK and U.S. – and other alignments raise the obvious question: where does Europe stand in relation to the current churning?
It is complicated.
Europe’s Asia connect is old, rich, strong and multi-layered. Asia is viewed and evaluated through national and regional perspectives. This explains why at least since 2018, countries such as France, Netherlands, Germany and the UK (which quit the EU in 2020) announced their specific policies towards the Indo-Pacific. The EU is in the process of coping with the rise of China and other Asian economies, the aggravation of tensions due to China’s aggressiveness along its periphery, and economic consolidation through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Against this backdrop, the announcement by the Council of the European Union (EU) of its initial policy conclusions in April, followed by the unveiling of the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific on 16 September, is notable.
Seen from Brussels, the EU and the Indo-Pacific are “natural partner regions”. The EU is already a significant player in several sub-regions such as the Indian Ocean littoral states, the ASEAN area and the Pacific Island states, but the strategy aims to enhance the EU’s engagement across a wide spectrum. Future progress will be moulded by principles ranging from the imperative to defend “the rules-based international order”, promoting a level-playing field for trade and investment, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and multilateral cooperation, and support “truly inclusive policy-making” encompassing the civil society and the private sector. The place of human rights and democracy has been duly emphasised in this normative framework.
The policy document also spells out seven areas in which cooperation will be strengthened. These are: sustainable and inclusive prosperity, green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnerships, connectivity, security and defence, and human security. The EU thus promises to focus on both the security and development dimensions of its diverse relationship with the region.
But its security and defence capabilities are quite limited, as compared to the other protagonists – the U.S. and China. To obviate an imbalance in favour of economic links, EU will need to give adequate space and support to France which has sizeable assets and linkages with the Indo-Pacific and which President Emmanuel Macron aptly described as a “fully-fledged Indo-Pacific country.”
The other must for the EU is to forge strategic coordination with the UK as the latter prepares to expand its role in Asia as part of its ‘Global Britain’ strategy.
As a major economic power, the EU has an excellent chance of success in its trade negotiations with Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand; in concluding discussions for an economic partnership agreement with the East African Community; and in forging fisheries agreements and green alliances with interested partners to fight climate change. To achieve all this and more, the EU must increase its readiness to share its financial resources and new technologies with its partners. Should this advance at a satisfactory pace, the EU strategy can work.
Approach to China and India
The EU suffers from marked internal divisions that constantly need fine balancing. Many states in central and eastern Europe, led by Germany (which is driven by the interests of its automobile industry), view China as a great economic opportunity. The temptation of maximizing profits and the geographic distance make them immune to the dangers of China’s unlawful behaviour and expansionism.
Others in the EU, however, are acutely conscious of the full contours of the China challenge. They believe that neither China’s dominance in Asia nor bipolarity leading to a new Cold War will serve Europe’s interests. NATO has already begun to plan for dealing with China in a realistic way as the U.S. policy of competition, cooperation and confrontation with China evolves further under President Joe Biden.
Risks facing the EU are varied. Russia is the more traditional threat and it is located next door. It is increasingly on China’s side in recent years. Hence the EU should find it easy to cooperate with the Quad. However, AUKUS muddied the waters, especially for France. Yet, endeavours by a part of the western alliance to bolster its naval and technological facilities to deal with the China threat cannot be unwelcome.
What the EU needs is an internally coordinated approach. The new strategy fails to accomplish this key task. Frédéric Grare, a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations, noted that the EU policy reveals “a desire to evade the China question by insisting on existing cooperation, but it brushes over the potentially problematic aspects of the relationship.”
India has reasons to be pleased with the EU’s comprehensive Indo-Pacific policy which it has formally welcomed. India’s pivotal position in the region ensures that a closer India-EU partnership has now become even more essential. The India-EU Leaders’ Meeting on 8 May, followed by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar’s Gymnich meeting with the EU foreign ministers in Slovenia on 3 September, were no accidents. They were conscious moves on the diplomatic chessboard, designed to “foster new synergies” for contributing to a better world. Early conclusion of an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement as well as a stand-alone investment protection agreement will be major steps. Cooperation in IR4 technologies is highly desirable. Consolidating and upgrading defence ties with France, Germany and the UK should also remain a significant priority.
The EU can create a vantage position for itself in the Indo-Pacific by being more candid with itself, more assertive with China, and more cooperative with India.
This article was first published in The Hindu.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former Ambassador.