In recent years, Indo-Pacific strategies have been developed by several countries. These plans are being developed due to changes in the Asia-pacific geopolitical landscape, namely China’s economic, political, and military rise and the growing resistance it accompanies from a range of countries, with the US at the forefront. Quiet on this front has been the EU, with no comprehensive strategy from the group as a whole. France, Germany, and the Netherlands have adopted their own national Indo-Pacific strategy. On April 19, the Foreign Affairs Council of the EU announced an EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, with a more thorough plan anticipated for September 2021.
Given the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific region, it is critical for the EU to have a strategy for engaging in the region. From an economic standpoint, the Indo-Pacific is home to four of the top-ten EU trading partners, and it is the second-largest destination for EU exports. From a geopolitical perspective, the Indo-Pacific is of crucial importance to the EU in light of several disputes that challenge the preservation of international law, and the maintenance of a rules-based system—both fundamental values pursued by the EU in its external actions.
The document states that the EU should reinforce its role in the Indo-Pacific, “with the aim of contributing to the stability, security, prosperity, and sustainable development of the region, based on the promotion of democracy, rule of law, human rights, and international law.” There are four main strategic goals of the proposed strategy:
Firstly, the EU wants to tackle global challenges in collaboration with partners. The main issues outlined are climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. The ASEAN, with whom the EU upgraded its partnership in 2020, is singled out as the regional organization through which EU engagement may be bolstered in the Asia-Pacific region. Here the EU also demonstrates a shared understanding of the importance of deepening engagement with partners who already have a significant presence in the region, most notably the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) composed of the US, India, Japan, and Australia. Indeed, Quad nations share comparable ambitions to the EU in ensuring a free and open to trade Indo-Pacific, in addressing climate change, and they have recently announced their intention to supply Indo-Pacific countries with up to a billion COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022.
Secondly, the EU aims to advance its sustainable connectivity priorities through the region. Though the 2018 EU’s strategy for connecting Europe and Asia, the European response to China’s mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been hardly visible until now. Yet, following a recent meeting of the 27 member states’ ambassadors to the EU, many expressed the need to improve the endeavour of offering a European alternative to Beijing’s BRI. This could be an area for cooperation with allies such as the UK and US, who have expressed similar intentions to reduce developing nations dependence on BRI.
Thirdly, economically the EU aspires to conclude ambitious Free Trade Agreements with Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia. Moreover, it wants to take further steps towards the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China. However, this is somewhat contradictory to the objective of diversifying the EU member’s supply chains, particularly pharmaceutical and raw materials, which are notably dependent upon China. However, the agreement appears in jeopardy after the EU-China tit for tat exchange on sanctions. In addition, the EU will seek to deepen economic relations with India, as increasing economic exchanges between the two regions will certainly be highly beneficial for both parties. EU-India relations will be under the spotlight in an upcoming EU-India online summit on May 8. Happening in a moment of souring relations with Beijing, the meeting has the potential to push the EU and India closer.
Finally, in the context of security, the EU recognizes, “the importance of a meaningful European naval presence in the Indo-Pacific.” This is an important step for the bloc; yet, it is not clear how many European countries will be able to send significant firepower to the region, particularly now that the EU is orphaned from the nuclear-armed British navy. France, a resident power in the area, is the only EU country with a real security strategy for the area. Still, through 2021, France and Germany will boost their freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, signalling increased European engagement in the disputed region. Recognizing the limits of EU hard power, the document calls for the development of defence partnerships with like minded countries and relevant organizations. This could happen through the ASEAN Regional Forum, as well as the Quad, as shown in France’s participation in naval drills with Quad members. European navies should also engage with Britain, which still maintains better military capabilities than many EU countries, and will continue to increase its presence in the contested South China Sea over the course of 2021
This document outlines Europe’s willingness to play a greater role in helping to frame a sustainable, free and open, and rule-based regional order in the Indo-Pacific. This could happen through a two-pronged strategy: First, the EU should bolster its economic and military capabilities in the area to increase its credibility as a reliable partner. Second, if its means fall short of the task, Europe should leverage and coordinate its partnership with like minded countries and organizations such as ASEAN, Quad members, and the UK.