Home to half of the world’s population and some of the fastest growing economies, all eyes are on the Indo-Pacific for its economic potential and geopolitical significance. Yet, the European Union has long hesitated to create an official Indo-Pacific strategy due to fears of antagonizing China, its limited maritime presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and its geographical distance. However, after pressure from member states, some of whom have already drafted their own national Indo-Pacific strategies, the Council of the European Union called upon the European Commission and High Representative to present an Indo-Pacific Strategy by September 2021. The proposed document covers a wide range of proposed EU policies and objectives, ranging from maritime trade to human rights and transnational security.
Europe is no stranger to the Indo-Pacific, having historically controlled several Asian countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. European ventures into the region were led by corporations, including the Dutch East India Company, in search of foreign markets. The Industrial Revolution ushered in a wave of powerful nation-states vying for control over peripheral countries for raw resources, geostrategic rivalries, and the consolidation of state authority through imperialistic means.
However, post-World War II saw the gradual diminution of European political dominance as the U.S. moved in to secure the region. World War II served as a major catalyst for the growth of independence movements in Asia, where European powers held a large concentration of colonies, leading to the gradual retreatment of foreign powers in the region. As World War II ended, the United States quickly entered the Cold War as the government fought to counter the Soviet Union’s influence and the spread of communism. Mao Zedong’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China also compelled the U.S. to make several bilateral alliances in the region, establishing a broad presence throughout the Indo-Pacific. Following the Vietnam and Korean Wars, the U.S. effectively became a major player in the region ahead of its European counterparts and continues to be so, especially through its involvement in Taiwan.
In recent years, however, European countries have made an increased effort to reestablish a strong presence. As the world’s largest trading bloc, the security of open maritime supply chains is crucial for Europe’s trade, as it heavily relies on secure and free sea lines. For example, stability in the Indian Ocean is a priority for the EU, as one-third of its energy resources come from the Middle East through maritime trade. Since 2008, the EU has promoted its anti-piracy work in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean region, and Southeast Asia through maritime domain awareness capacity building, designed to protect vital maritime routes. Notable countries that have also taken steps to increase their naval presence, in the maritime interest of all EU member states, include France, the U.K., Germany, and the Netherlands.
With steps taken to establish the first official Indo-Pacific Strategy, the EU has signaled its increased assertiveness in defending its maritime economic interests, as seen through free trade agreements with powerful players in the region such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. This boosted effort to deepen economic cooperation with regional partners points to the EU’s ambition to influence the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, which has largely fallen into the hands of the US and China. As open trade is crucial for the growth of the European economy, it is clear that the EU is looking to diversify and strengthen its maritime supply chains by improving partnerships. In 2018, the EU released its “Strategy for Connecting Europe and Asia,” which outlined the EU’s agenda to grow sustainable and transparent partnerships between countries in the Indo-Pacific. Also dubbed as the EU’s “connectivity strategy,” the goal is to build alliances with countries of similar agendas and connect with existing initiatives for enhanced global prosperity. The document highlighted the union’s desire to specifically strengthen sustainable energy, trade, transportation, investments, as well as digital and human dimension protection. To act upon these interests, the EU is currently working to establish effective transport and electricity transmission systems, facilitate student exchanges and staff mobility between the two continents, strengthen country partnerships, establish encompassing air transport agreements, and digitally support research collaborations.
As the fastest growing economic region in the world, the Indo-Pacific’s rapid urbanization has put strain on the region’s land, natural resources, and sustainability. The Indo-Pacific is also highly vulnerable to climate change effects, which include the alteration of the physical environment, food and water insecurity, and forced migration. With these hazards come a large range of implications such as diplomatic tensions, a rise in extremist organization activity, resource disputes. At the same time, the EU is also looking to become a leader in global issues, such as those outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For example, the EU has launched several strategies under its Green Alliances and Partnerships initiative in support of multilateral pledges, including the Paris Agreement and the Convention on Biological Diversity, to transform Europe into a sustainable and competitive economy. Particularly, the EU has been taking steps to achieve ambitious environmental targets through sustainable infrastructure, biodiversity protection, and the transition to a circular economy. Thus, the EU should aim to incorporate the Indo-Pacific partners into bilateral and multilateral initiatives that foster sustainable cooperation for crucial obstacles for the global community. While issues range from climate change to gender equality to mitigating the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the main focus of taking initiative is for the EU to solidify its presence and promote its interests in the region. Enhancing cooperation with Europe’s allies and multilateral organizations working within the Asia-Pacific who will serve to build a strong community of those whose political agendas align with the EU. With a strong support system of allies, the cooperation of countries in the region will enable the EU to take the lead in effectively tackling global issues through targeted policies while also building credibility amongst nations in the region.
While officials have denied it, the creation of an official Indo-Pacific strategy has been widely viewed as the EU’s strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region by increasing cooperation with China’s neighbors. As an economic and political powerhouse, China has solidified its presence in the Indo-Pacific through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s increasingly confrontational advances in the South China Sea. Despite the geographic distance, the EU has been forced to confront the impact of China’s growing power in Asia as BRI efforts have led to a number of Chinese investments in European strategic sectors and critical infrastructure. The emergence of debt traps in smaller European countries and influence operations in European academia and politics are also among the critical issues that officials and policymakers fear.
The Council points to dangerous geopolitical dynamics in the region, such as increased tensions in trade and human security that have directly impacted the stability and security of the EU’s interests. While the document does not name any specific party, many have interpreted it to reference China’s increased involvement in the Indo-Pacific. As a cooperative security actor, the EU is likely to address these transnational security threats by taking an active stance in efforts to resolve international security challenges, which encompass maritime security, terrorism, and nuclear arms control. Specifically, the Council calls for cooperation in the context of Common Security and Defense (CSDP) missions and operations in the framework of Indo-Pacific centered agreements such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). In line with the May 2018 Council Conclusions on Enhanced EU Security Cooperation in and with Asia, the EU is also anticipating the formation of new Framework Participation Agreements with partners in the region to establish the comprehensive monitoring of maritime security and freedom of navigation according to international law. Aside from forging new initiatives, the strategy also aims to strengthen existing agreements with Pacific Island and African countries to address transnational issues, such as maritime security and disaster prevention.
The EU should capitalize on its maritime commitments to expand its geographic scope in cooperation with regional partners. A solid European naval presence will allow the EU to effectively protect maritime routes in the Indian Ocean that are critical for the growth of the European economy, have a decisive hand in the power balance of the Indo-Pacific, and strengthen alyships. Not only will the promotion of transnational security contribute to the EU’s reputation as a global security power, but the region’s local communities will also benefit from increased efforts to improve human rights and enforce the rule of law.