The EU Strategy for the Indo-Pacific

European Union Flag at Berlaymont Building
Image by verchmarco is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Following the examples of France, Germany and the Netherlands, on April 16th, the European Union (EU) published the guidelines for an Indo-Pacific strategy. They will now be developed in detail by the executive branch of the EU, the European Commission, by September 2021 and will accompany the national strategies of the member states. The reason for this focus on the Indo-Pacific is primarily because of the growing importance of China and India as economic, technological and military powers. Other mid-sized countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan are also relevant players. Hence, the EU member states acknowledge this region to be “the world economic and strategic center of gravity” and “home to 60 % of the world’s population producing 60 % of global GDP”. They also highlight the “geopolitical competition” and “increasing tensions on trade and supply chains” which can have a detrimental effect on European economic and security interests due to the strong interdependence between the two regions. Given these considerations, the EU aims to  play a meaningful role in the Indo-Pacific in order to guarantee its status and interests in the future. Above all, three main elements can be identified in the guidelines: multilateralism and low politics; economic interests; security.

The most important and recurring feature of the strategy is probably the focus on non-military issues and the insistence on working with other countries in accordance to international law. In particular, the EU aims to strengthen its engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries and deepen cooperation with other nations in multilateral forums while refraining from naming specific threats and geopolitical opponents. Thus, the EU puts a lot of emphasis on low-politics areas where it can play an effective role, such as the protection of human rights, the promotion of gender equality, the fight against climate change and the conservation and sustainability of ocean resources. Because of the recent pandemic and the high level of CO2 emission in the region, the EU will also direct its efforts and make it its main priority to build a more resilient health-crisis management and a sustainable economic model. The final chapter in the guidelines outlines the ambition to “enhance cooperation on higher education, science and technology with like-minded Indo-Pacific partners.” This approach is consistent with the European Union’s traditional foreign policy and image as a civilian and normative power, which privileges diplomacy and other non-military means to reach geopolitical goals.

The role of the economy is equally important, given the level of EU exports and imports with the region and the avenue for further economic growth. Besides, the Indo-Pacific countries have also grown their relevance in technological terms, most notably in the electronics and semiconductor industries. As a result, in order to remain economically competitive and sustain acceptable levels of GDP growth, European companies need to have a strong presence in the region. Something they hope to maintain and even to increase by promoting economic development and by signing other free trade and investment agreements, similarly to those concluded with Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. The strategy is also very inclusive in relation to the two regional juggernauts, China and India, for which it states to “take further steps towards the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China” and “to explore deepening economic cooperation with India.” The EU will also try to reduce its external dependence on some strategic goods and raw materials through diversification of its supply chain, which is in line with its policy of becoming more autonomous and resilient in economic terms.

Finally, the EU aims to play an important role in the security domain, as well. Although the guidelines do not name any specific country or non-state actors as a geopolitical enemy, they do refer to general threats such as maritime security, cybersecurity, terrorism, disinformation, arms control, nuclear proliferation, disruptive technologies, hybrid threats and organized crimes. These challenges will be tackled primarily through the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions and operations and in cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries. Current missions like EUNAVFOR Atlanta and CRIMARIO II will then be extended in scope and geography to include the Indo-Pacific within the larger EU policy. Moreover, based on voluntary contributions, the guidelines express the possibility for member states to enhance military cooperation with regional partners and “where relevant, to establish comprehensive monitoring of maritime security and freedom of navigation, according to international law, especially UNCLOS.” Thus, the Member States “acknowledge the importance of a meaningful European naval presence in the Indo-Pacific,” signaling a stronger future deployment of European warships in the region.

In sum, this strategy represents a historical moment for the EU foreign policy as its member states struggle to guard their interests and remain geopolitically relevant in a changing international order where new powers in the Indo-Pacific are rising. Ultimately, much of the EU credibility might  depend on its ability to play power politics and deploy substantial military force in the region, so as to be taken seriously as a security actor. However, the formulation of a common European defense policy is hindered by the divergent security interests and geopolitical views of the member states, which remain the main actors when it comes to hard power. The role of the EU then is limited chiefly to civilian missions and peace-keeping operations. Besides, a certain reluctance by Europeans to use military means, primarily due to their recent history, represents another limitation to the EU’s geopolitical power. This approach has been often described as naive since it leaves Europeans to the whims of other nimbler and more assertive powers that are willing to use military power to defend their interests. It is a mindset that is very much ingrained in the European public opinion, but one that has been recently challenged by some prominent European politicians, like the EU High Representative Josep Borrell, who said that “the EU has to learn to use the language of power.” Even if Europeans were to adopt a more assertive and realistic stance, their goals and statements need to be complemented with adequate defense capabilities which is difficult in the short-term due to heavy cuttings in the last decades. The Indo-Pacific, in fact, is a region populated by large countries with powerful armed forces where tensions and nationalism run high. If Europeans want to play an important role in the security and balance of power in the region, they can do so only if they act united, whether through the EU or with ad-hoc coalitions of individual member states, and significantly increase their military expenditure.

Despite these limitations, the EU guidelines for the Indo-Pacific illustrate the willingness of the member states to play, with a shared strategy and a single voice, a major role in the geopolitical epicenter of the 21st century. Even though the EU does not carry the same military weight as the US, its presence represents an important public signal of diplomatic engagement which is capable of strengthening the European national strategies and reinforcing the balance of power against China. Above all, given the size of its market, the EU would exploit its economic power to further its geopolitical interests and build a more resilient European economy. It will also offer an important contribution to various challenges, such as climate change and gender equality. Furthermore, the decision of not naming China as a rival and the focus on low-politics issues will distinguish the EU and might give it an edge compared to other countries which are focused on a more traditional foreign policy based on military power and who have taken a confrontational stance against China — although this view in Europe has hardened recently as China keeps growing and major ideological differences separates the two. Some pundits, like Harvard scholar Andrew Moravcsik, points to this non-realist type of foreign policy of the EU as to be the real strength of Europe since military means hardly reach geopolitical goals in the long-term while the EU civilian power has proven to be successful several times in the past. Whether the EU strategy is the right one, or if it is bound to collapse due to grim geopolitical realities and military confrontation, this is difficult to say now with certainty, as geopolitics is an unpredictable and complex long-term game.