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Foreign Policy

EU Turns Gaze Toward Indo-Pacific

Sep 07, 2021
  • Lu Yang

    Research Fellow, Institute of the Belt and Road Initiative, Tsinghua University


On April 19, the European Council adopted the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which laid out significant interests of the EU in the region. This reaffirmation of European concern and responsibility demonstrates that the center of the world economy has already shifted to the Indo-Pacific, along with intensified geopolitical competition and great pressure in trade, supply chains, technology and politics. These will not only threaten regional security and stability but also lead to negative spillover effects.

In view of the successive India-Pacific strategic documents from France, Germany and the Netherlands since 2019, the introduction of EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific should come as no surprise. And China undoubtedly serves as an important factor in the whole picture. From here, two questions emerge: Is the European version of the Indo-Pacific strategy a follow-up to the United States or an independent strategic consideration? How should China evaluate it and respond?

Proposed by German officer and political geographer Karl Haushofer in the 1920s, the concept of the Indo-Pacific comprises areas along the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It has been adopted by the United States with new geopolitical and strategic meaning that replaces “Asia-Pacific,” which seems unsuited to its current strategic consideration: competition with China. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy is tied to its own security and that of regional allies under the banner of values.

The core idea is to counterbalance China by reinforcing alliances and strengthening cooperation — particularly with India, Japan and Australia — by invoking rules and values that underpin a free and open Indo-Pacific. This version emphasizes a rules-based regional order under U.S. leadership.

On values the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is compatible with the U.S. version, yet the EU has attached great importance to a “rules-based international order,” showing that the fundamental purpose is to promote Europe as a global actor. This varies greatly from the strategic goal of the United States in the region.

Moving from cautious onlooker to participant in Indo-Pacific affairs, the EU has undergone a gradual process of understanding and acceptance of the term Indo-Pacific. The EU has always highlighted its unique role as a normative power. In recent years it has expressed varying degrees of concern over the Indo-Pacific Strategy led by the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, as well as China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

As competition between China and the United States intensifies, the EU believes this will not only weaken its position in international affairs but will also eventually endanger its interests in the Indo-Pacific region. As a normative power it believes it has a unique role to play: The neutral image in security and the good relationships with relevant regional powers enable the EU to become an indispensable player in maintaining regional balance and stability.

The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy is laid out in two main parts: overall planning and the specific policies of major countries. General policy and implementation mechanisms, such as free trade agreements and summit diplomacy, are brought under a plan at the EU level. Member states are expected to demonstrate executive ability through diplomatic dialogue, military exercises and port visits, whereby the EU may achieve a heightened presence and greater influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Specifically, this version of the Indo-Pacific strategy can be constructed in the following ways:

The first relies on current regional institutional frameworks and bilateral multilateral platforms, such as the Asia-Europe Meeting, ASEAN Regional Forum and South Asian Association Regional Cooperation, in the interest of political influence. At present, the EU is an observer of SAARC and a staunch supporter of ASEM and ARF. Meanwhile, it maintains a close relationship with the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.

These diverse channels of communication and mechanisms are playing an increasingly important role in exchanges and cooperation between Brussels and relevant countries. At the bilateral level, Europe places high value on close policy coordination and interaction with major Indo-Pacific countries, especially China, India, Japan and Australia.

The second advances its presence in key regional agreements, including the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, to ensure a strategic position in trade, to preserve and improve the existing multilateral system of trade and open markets and to create a level playing field. The EU has long devoted a tremendous amount of effort to conducting FTA negotiations with concerned economies.

In concrete terms, the signing of free trade agreements with Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea and other countries has been completed as negotiations with ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand were underway. Brussel also seeks profound achievements in the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, or CAI, which will contribute to a favorable economic position for Europeans in the region.

The third, deepens cooperation in the field of security, to strengthen the military presence in thee Indo-Pacific area on account of European countries’ vital interests in counterterrorism, cybersecurity, arms control and the eesecurity of maritime and aviation routes. Considering the fact that France is the only EU country that has deployed substantial military in this region, it has a stronger demand for defense and it is more inclined to establish defense cooperation system along with Japan, India, Australia and other countries. Moreover, the EU has already occupied a significant share of the Indo-Pacific weapons market though commercial arms sales. The accelerating arms race in the region may boost arms exports of the EU and increase its impact on security and defense.

Fourth, the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy lists a wide range of areas of cooperation, including connectivity, ocean governance, research, technology, health, climate change, disaster reduction and ecological protection, apart from the above-mentioned constructions in the fields of multilateral cooperation, economy and defense. In general, this strategy covers substantial content and topics that indicate the EU has ambitious, comprehensive goals in the Indo-Pacific region.

If the issue of values is set aside, there has been a convergence between the EU and China in areas of cooperation and multilateralism. Different from the American version, the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy follows the principle of long-term engagement that is consistent with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, while emphasizing the importance of international law and conventions. Moreover, it covers the western Indian Ocean region — the East Coast of Africa — to which Europe has traditionally been closely linked.

For policymakers, the content of a concept is more crucial for analysis than the concept itself. Under the banner of an Indo-Pacific strategy, different countries set their own agendas for the region according to their interests and policy environment. Therefore, it is quite a challenging task for the U.S. to unify the policies and behaviors of its allies, even if they share a similar values framework. While balancing China is an important strategic goal of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the four constituent countries have differed at the concrete level on how, exactly, to interact with it. The Indo-Pacific strategies in European countries also vary in outlook. The pluralistic reality of the various strategies has blurred the strategic direction and weakened the influence of the U.S. version.

Regarding multiple Indo-Pacific strategies, it is necessary to treat them with a calm mind, carefully study and analyze the approach of different countries and find common ground in responsibilities and interests regarding China. To conclude, if strategy in the Indo-Pacific could be evaluated from the level of regional development rather than the narrow focus of security, it would be of positive significance to deepen the regional cooperation agenda and develop constructive regional partnerships. 

(Reprinted from Antalya Diplomacy Forum. Minor edits have been made for clarity.)

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