Navigating Tides: The European Union’s Expanding Role in the Indo-Pacific

Driven by a mix of domestic and regional security concerns, in 2011 the United States began its pivot to the Pacific, followed by the European Union's formal recognition of the region’s importance in 2016. Since then, Europe has adopted an economics-driven strategy, while the United States has pursued a more comprehensive security-based approach, shaped by differences in competencies and capabilities that ultimately define their respective foreign policies. These divergences also influence their perceptions and responses to China, with the United States adopting a more assertive stance against this “pacing threat” and the European Union maintaining a country-neutral approach. Despite these differences, both actors are increasingly converging on the importance of "economic security" in the Indo-Pacific, now integral to their national security considerations.

Q1: What factors are driving the European Union's increased engagement in the Indo-Pacific?

A1: The Indo-Pacific and the European Union have the highest record of bilateral trade between regions, with the added presence of three of the world's largest economies: China, India, and Japan. The Straits of Malacca, Ombai, and Lombok are chokepoints that are difficult and expensive to circumvent, which renders these maritime supply routes vulnerable to great power rivalries, maritime territorial disputes, terrorism, piracy, and climate-related risks. Current Red Sea attacks exemplify how dependent Europe’s trade-intensive economy is on these strategic maritime passages. Furthermore, China’s nine-dash line maritime claim in the South China Sea could potentially restrict freedom of navigation, affecting 40 percent of the European Union’s trade.

The Indo-Pacific is emerging as a technology manufacturing hub, with significant access to natural resources and rare earth minerals. Partner democracies are concerned about losing the competition for critical technologies to China. The European Union is pushing to grow its circular economy, expanding its manufacturing base, and reducing dependencies through the Critical Raw Materials Act, the European Chips Act, and the Net-Zero Industry Act. Businesses are responding to this new geopolitical landscape by shifting to a "China plus one" strategy—a supply chain strategy aimed at reducing dependency on China by diversifying across countries.

Consequently, although it is lagging behind the United States in certain areas, the European Union is increasingly recognizing its economic vulnerabilities to regional escalating conventional and unconventional threats. With the introduction of its first dedicated strategy for the Indo-Pacific in 2021, followed by subsequent references in its Strategic Compass and Economic Security Strategy, the European Union has elevated its commitment to the region. While the Indo-Pacific strategy outlines shared challenges and priority areas for deepening cooperation, the following documents provide a more detailed roadmap on how to step up engagement to “ensure a secure and open Indo-Pacific,” signaling a growing level of concern and urgency. This shift is motivated by the desire to actively safeguard its economic and security interests.

Notwithstanding, the European Union faces internal divergences in perspectives, reflecting historical differences and varying views on foreign policy priorities. This diversity presents challenges to the materialization of its Indo-Pacific strategy. While some member states align closely with the United States, like Poland and the Netherlands, others, such as France, are pursuing more autonomous strategies. Finally, some, including Germany and Italy, are adopting a more cautious stance.

Q2: How has the European Union historically engaged in the Indo-Pacific?

A2: Despite longstanding bilateral and postcolonial ties between EU member states and Indo-Pacific nations, the European Union articulated its first official position on the region in 2016 with the publication of the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS). The EUGS recognizes the need to strengthen partnerships across the Indo-Pacific and East Asian regions to address common humanitarian, economic, and security challenges. Specifically, it highlights upholding international law, promoting democratic values and human rights, enhancing joint counterterrorism efforts, ensuring freedom of navigation, and safeguarding economic connectivity. Since 2019, the European Union has negotiated several trade agreements with the countries of Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Korea.

The concerns identified in 2016 have persisted over time, coupled with a significant cooling of relations between the European Union and China. Nevertheless, as noted by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the European Union largely remains “an extra-regional actor with limited impact on the regional security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.” However, the European Union’s mission is to position itself as a global actor capable of promoting peace, security, and prosperity.

Q3: How does the European Union's approach to the Indo-Pacific differ from and converge with that of the United States?

A3: Faced with similar trade and technological interdependencies, the term “economic security” has taken on new significance in national security discussions on both sides of the Atlantic. In July 2023, the European Union's economic security strategy suggested closer convergence with Washington's policies. Parallel goals include diversifying, reducing “harmful dependencies” and enhancing industrial capacity. This mutual influence is evident in the United States’ adoption of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s “de-risking” term.

Similarly, the European Union’s economic security strategy recognizes threats from emerging technologies and countries with increasing civil-military fusion. Recent European Commission proposals on dual-use technologies align with the United States’ focus on critical sectors, such as semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and quantum technology. Nonetheless, despite shared measures like export controls and investment screening mechanisms, the European Union's approach remains country-neutral as opposed to the United States’, which targets China explicitly. This divergence results from complex decision-making processes and divergent national priorities, constraining the European Union's unified action in foreign policy, a competency retained by member state.

While Russia remains the European Union's primary concern, 2022 and 2023 saw a gradual increase in EU assertiveness toward China, intensified by China's continued backing of Russia. The European Union’s first ever reference to China as a “systemic rival” and the Joint Declaration on EU-NATO Cooperation, highlight this evolving stance. Additionally, NATO’s communiqué warning China against further support to Russia provides additional evidence of a growing assertiveness among European states.

Nevertheless, the European Union’s approach remains largely defensive, prioritizing multilateral action to uphold international law. The European Union also remains cautious about adopting policies that could contravene its commitment to an “open economy” and undermine institutions like the World Trade Organization. In contrast, the United States favors bilateralism and minilateralism, as evidenced by initiatives such as AUKUS, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, I2U2, and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Lastly, despite ongoing discussions on the European Union’s military role, internal divergences and limited military capabilities persist, hindering the European bloc from assuming a more proactive role. Meanwhile, the Chinese military and commercial network across the Indo-Pacific, commonly known as the “string of pearls,” has accelerated U.S.-led bilateral and minilateral partnerships. The region has witnessed a rise in the frequency and scale of joint naval exercises with countries like Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines, through Malabar, Talisman Sabre, Balikatan, and Super Garuda Shield, among others.

Q4: Does increased U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific lead to reduced attention on the transatlantic alliance?

A4: The prosperity and security of the European Union and the United States remain intricately linked as shared challenges reshape the international landscape. Despite differences in priorities and approaches, both parties continue to pursue common goals, underscoring the rationale of the alliance. Even as the United States shifts its focus to the Indo-Pacific, it continues to support its allies, as evidenced in Europe and the Middle East. In fact, wargame scenarios in the Western Pacific highlight the insufficiency of U.S. capabilities alone, suggesting it will increasingly need to rely on its allies, including for supporting forces.

Therefore, instead of reduced attention, the alliance is most likely undergoing a change in nature, with Washington’s role as a security provider becoming limited. Consequently, Europe should enhance its strategic and logistical readiness.

If tensions were to increase in the Indo-Pacific alongside Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and escalating conflict in the Middle East, the European Union would be expected to assume a more substantial role. This role would involve maintaining open lines of communication with China, crucial for de-escalating tensions in critical situations.With the United States having led transatlantic relations since World War 2, resulting in an often unequal relationship with the U.S.’ voice carrying more weight, this new context offers an opportunity for the European Union to step up its role as a global actor and a reliable party in the transatlantic alliance.

Q5: How can the European Union build a sustainable and effective security presence in the Indo-Pacific?

A5: The European Union needs to prepare itself to withstand economic shocks and disruptions stemming from escalating geopolitical tensions, emphasizing the importance of resilient industrial bases and supply chains. To maintain its global role and alliance commitments, the European Union should enhance its security capabilities, preparing to play a role independently and alongside allies, especially as the upcoming American and European elections may significantly affect transatlantic relations.

Achieving improved readiness involves balancing collective responses with member states' positions. While prioritizing crisis prevention, the European Union should prepare for an escalation in the Indo-Pacific and a growing use of coercive measures, including the weaponization of supply chains—the effects of which it has already experienced. From pandemic-related shortages to geopolitical conflict and maritime threats, the European Union has faced a range of supply-chain disruptions in the last four years: China's nationalization of medical supplies and reduction of exports to favor domestic use, the Russia-Ukraine war affecting energy and agriculture markets, and Houthi activities endangering Red Sea shipping.

The European Union should also leverage its economic and diplomatic influence to ease regional tensions and strengthen ties with Indo-Pacific nations sharing economic and security interests amid growing Sino-American rivalry. Most Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries seek a nonaligned stance, an opportunity for the European Union to assert itself as a third way and deepen EU-ASEAN partnership from framework to action. The 2024 Ministerial Forum reiterated commitment to the rules-based order, economic resilience, green transition, and addressing geopolitical and security challenges. Discussions included potentially expanding the EU-Pacific Economic Partnership Agreement and additional regional Free Trade Agreements, which the European Union should actively pursue. This would alleviate de-risking policy impacts on the private sector. As conducting business in China becomes increasingly complex for Western companies, the United States is gradually adopting a friend-shoring approach to navigate this landscape. Currently, the European Union is negotiating bilateral free trade agreements with Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand. To position itself as an alternative, counteracting the increasingly antagonistic Sino-American relations, the European Union should find a balanced approach between protecting its business industry and maintaining dialogue with China on areas of common interests.

In alignment with the European Union’s Economic Security Strategy, the European Union should reinforce technological industrial cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners. As the threat of dual-use technologies increases, the European Commission’s most recent proposals aim to strengthen existing export controls, advance both inbound and outbound investment screening mechanisms, and enhance research security—features that share similarities with U.S. tool kit. Together, this momentum should be harnessed to align their policies with the national strategies of key Indo-Pacific countries, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and Republic of Korea. Furthermore, emulating the U.S. approach, which extends technology-security collaboration through initiatives like Pillar Two of AUKUS, U.S.-ROK Next Generation Critical and Emerging Technologies Dialogue, and U.S.-Japan Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) Partnership, the European Union should actively engage in technology cooperation.

Existing EU Digital Partnerships with Japan, Republic of Korea, and Singapore also serve as robust frameworks to continue making progress on transnational issues related to digital trade and technologies. These should increasingly align to promote collaborative research and development, thereby contributing to a secure and safe digital transformation.


The European Union's increased involvement in the Indo-Pacific, fueled by the imperative to safeguard its economic and security interests, presents an opportunity for the bloc to fortify its global standing. Acting as a stabilizing force and upholding international law, the European Union can contribute to regional stability in the evolving geopolitical landscape, while deepening its alliance with the United States.

Emily Benson is the director of the Project on Trade and Technology and senior fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Gloria Sicilia is an intern with the Project on Trade and Technology at CSIS.

Gloria Sicilia

Intern, Project on Trade and Technology
Emily Benson
Director, Project on Trade and Technology and Senior Fellow, Scholl Chair in International Business