The European Union Is Shaping Its Strategy for the Indo-Pacific

Following the example of France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the European Union is developing its own strategy for the Indo-Pacific. On April 16, 2021, EU member states adopted conclusions which provided detailed guidelines to European institutions to elaborate a strategy on the Indo-Pacific by September 2021. The document, entitled “EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” signals Europe’s interest in increasing its role in the region, building on existing, but sometimes fragmented, engagement in the region.

Q1: Why has the European Union decided to adopt a strategy?

A1: The primary reason for Europe’s decision to build a dedicated strategy for the Indo-Pacific is its economic interdependence with the region. Europe’s economy is deeply embedded in networks of trade, investment, and supply with the Indo-Pacific. EU trade in goods with Asia totaled 1.5 trillion euros ($1.8 trillion) in 2018 while foreign direct investment between Asia and Europe reached close to 90 billion euros ($107 billion). More than one-third of all European exports go to the region, a majority of those transiting through the sea lanes of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Europeans are also mindful of the growing centrality of the Indo-Pacific when it comes to achieving a global green and climate transition, a flagship priority for the European Union. “The Indo-Pacific now represents the world’s economic and strategic center of gravity” explained EU High Representative Josep Borrell last March. Against this backdrop, Europeans are understandably concerned by the intense geopolitical competition in the region which threatens its stability, thus “directly impacting on the EU’s interests.”

Admittedly, Europe did not wait until 2021 to strengthen its engagement in the Indo-Pacific. EU members have already developed over 40 strategic partnerships in the region and the European Union itself has pursued a proactive regional trade policy, concluding free trade agreements with Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, and South Korea. Beyond the economic realm, the European Union has built a multifaceted partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) covering various issues from climate change to higher education and maritime security. Both organizations agreed in December 2020 to elevate their cooperation by adopting a “strategic partnership.” At the national level, EU member states also increased their commitment to the region, starting with France, whose presence in the Indo-Pacific is long-standing. More recently, Germany and later the Netherlands adopted their own guidelines for the Indo-Pacific, laying the foundations for an EU approach toward the region.

Despite these individual and collective steps, Europe’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific still suffers from a piecemeal approach limiting its overall influence. Even though member states have expanded their security footprint across the region, their activities remain uncoordinated and sometimes disjointed, notably when it comes to their capacity-building efforts or their maritime patrols. Likewise, the European Union has elaborated time-specific strategies on issues such as connectivity and maritime security but has never fully managed to implement its policies in a comprehensive fashion. EU member states clearly signaled their intent to change this situation by asking both the EU High Representative and the European Commission to develop the EU strategy in the form of a “joint communication,” thereby allowing the strategy to draw on the wide array of EU tools from trade agreements to connectivity investments to maritime security.

Q2: What will be Europe’s priority areas for its Indo-Pacific strategy?

A2: While the EU Council conclusions are usually drafted in general terms, the text adopted on April 16 is striking for its length and the details given. The overall ambition is to contribute “to the stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development” of the Indo-Pacific, which is defined as stretching “from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island States,” a large definition which corresponds to the French definition.

The member states have set six lines of action that can be grouped into three diplomatic, economic, and security baskets. In the diplomatic field, Europeans call for a stable Indo-Pacific based on “democracy, the rule of law, human rights and international law.” By embracing this vision of the Indo-Pacific, the European Union is signaling its intention to adopt a tougher stance toward China in a context of increasing tensions between Beijing and Brussels. China is only mentioned once in the conclusions (in reference to the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment) while Europeans stress the need to foster cooperation with like-minded partners with whom they share the same “principles, values or mutual interest.” The European Union will develop further its cooperation with regional actors starting with the ASEAN but also with the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Pacific Islands Forum. Substance-wise, Europeans will aim at promoting an “effective rules-based multilateralism” to tackle a large spectrum of challenges from climate and biodiversity to ocean governance, disaster risk reduction, and pandemic management and prevention policies.

On the economic front, Europeans will seek to promote their economic interests by attempting to conclude new trade and investment agreements—notably with Australia, Indonesia, and New Zealand—and by further diversifying their supply chains. Europe will also advocate for stronger collaboration on innovation through joint research and development projects and higher education mobility. Building on its 2018 “Connecting Europe and Asia” strategy, the European Union’s important focus on connectivity and its push for an alternative approach to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will strengthen transparency, sustainability, and local ownership. Despite China’s economic omnipresence, Europeans will try to be more strategic by improving the visibility of their projects, better mobilizing private capital, and enhancing their cooperation with likeminded regional partners such as Japan or India.

In the security and defense sphere, member states want the European Union to “play its part” in response to mounting security challenges in the Indo-Pacific, ranging from maritime security to nonproliferation, cybersecurity, and counterterrorism. On maritime security specifically, Europeans prioritize securing “free and open” sea lines of communications “in full compliance with international law.” To that end, member states seek greater engagement  between European and Asian navies and enhanced maritime domain awareness, notably through “CRIMARIO II,” an information sharing platform whose geographical scope will be expanded from the Indian Ocean to South and Southeast Asia. The European Union is considering establishing coordinated maritime presences in the Indo-Pacific based on the lessons learned from the Gulf of Guinea where such a mechanism was recently implemented. Enhanced maritime coordination and increased physical presence would allow Europeans to amplify the impact of their naval assets when they are deployed in the region.

Q3: What should expectations be for the European Union’s strategy in practice?

A3: Once completed, the strategy will still face serious hurdles in its implementation. The first is the modest means available to achieve the European Union’s ambitions. When it comes to connectivity, the European Union will struggle to match the scale of China's BRI. The European Union spent 8 billion euros in Asia on connectivity projects between 2014 and 2020. These resources remain far below the estimated 1.3 trillion euros needed each year to answer the demand for infrastructure across the Asia-Pacific region, although the European Union’s ability to better mobilize private investment and to focus on projects with high added-value and visibility will amplify the impact of its funding. The same can be said regarding maritime security. The size of European navies has been substantially reduced over the past decades and Europeans still struggle to respond to security challenges in their immediate neighborhood. Here again, Europeans will have to be pragmatic and coordinate among themselves to ensure effective operational presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Given these limitations, Europeans will need to cooperate with the United Kingdom and the United States if they want to have a more meaningful impact in the Indo-Pacific. Despite Brexit, neither the United Kingdom nor the European Union can entirely act alone in this contested region. Both London and Brussels should build flexible cooperation on shared priorities such as maritime security, climate change, and human rights in the Indo-Pacific. Likewise, Europe should seek to build a common agenda with the United States, with Washington’s “unparalleled priority”—China—and the broader Indo-Pacific region as an issue of mutual interest. Areas of increased transatlantic cooperation could include joint connectivity investments, coordinated action on human rights violations (such as declarations and sanctions), joint maritime patrols or exercises, and cooperative initiatives in the realm of cybersecurity or nonproliferation.

One final challenge to Europe’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific will be Europeans’ ability to effectively overcome their own internal divisions. Economic dependence on China has notably led some member states to be reluctant to support any strong move against Beijing. In 2016, Greece, Hungary, and Croatia notably opposed a firm declaration of the European Union against China’s maritime claims. These divisions might progressively fade away as Beijing adopts an increasingly aggressive diplomatic posture amid the pandemic and on human rights issues, but European unity will still be fragile and a work in progress. Likewise, European efforts could be impeded by internal strains among the Indo-Pacific countries themselves, starting with ASEAN. As the Myanmar crisis intensifies, ASEAN seems completely paralyzed, thus putting at risk its newly adopted strategic partnership with the European Union.

Despite these obstacles, the European Union’s new approach toward the Indo-Pacific is a promising first step. Adopted unanimously by all member states, these conclusions signal Europe’s ambition to play an active role in this region by harnessing its different policies and better coordinating with like-minded partners. The EU institutions will now have to elaborate a detailed strategy by next September. In the meantime, Europeans will continue to engage with the major actors of the region, starting with India and Japan.

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Pierre Morcos