The European Union in Indo-Pacific Waves

Harshita Singh
24th April 2021

“In many ways the path of the future world order will be set in the Indo-Pacific region as it has become a global economic and political centre of gravity” said Charles Michels, President of European Council. With the world entering the third decade of 21st century, dices rolling and stakeholders evolving, Indo-Pacific waves have picked up a new momentum. Moving beyond the traditional importance given to the maritime cooperation, the region has witnessed its offshoots in geopolitics and geoeconomics. The Indo Pacific is not a new concept and the region’s prominence has been recognised for a long time but of late, it has elevated the intrigue of European Union, which is planning, on joining the bandwagon of Indo-Pacific enthusiasts while shaping up the multiplicity of strategies for the Indo-Pacific region back at Brussels. This article explores the dynamics that are shaping the European Union’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region and the trajectory that is developing ahead, in promulgating EU’s position.

The European Union does not stand as tall as it did back when it was expected to succeed the US as the dominant superpower. Over the years, it has fallen prey to the incessant hyper-nationalism, political populism, and border issues to name a few. Europe is no stranger to power shifts and with the development of new power alignments in the most emerging dynamic region, Indo- Pacific; its significance has come of age. Evolving from Steel and Coal to Maritime Security and Technology, the EU has come a long way in executing its vested interests. The bloc has witnessed internal shifts that have had longstanding ramifications. Consolidating its energy from the UK-EU divorce, the European bloc has now set its eyes on the Indo-Pacific region. The EU has paved its way in sync with its partners and in the name of strategic innovation and unity, has shown interest in the emerging geopolitics and geo-economics of the Indo-Pacific. The European Union’s Indo-pacific strategy which will take a concrete form sooner or later reflects the same outlook.  The world has realised the dogma of eurocentrism and thus for the European Union to remain at the centre or periphery of the whirlwind, it must learn and adapt.

Rise of Indo-Pacific: Where does EU Stand?

As an important signal of commitment to stability, peace, and openness in the region, the EU has prioritised its interest in the Indo-Pacific region. The Quad Leaders joint statement; “The Spirit of the Quad” which was released in March reiterated the centrality of ASEAN in the Indo Pacific Region. If one is to take note of the significant relationship between the EU and ASEAN which was elevated from ‘dialogue’ to ‘strategic’ partnership last December, it’ll explain the Union’s vital dependence on maritime traffic and its investment in the safety and stability of its sea routes of the Indo-Pacific.

The European Union is a conglomeration of members with varying perspectives and for them to see eye to eye on every agenda takes time and patience; the cooperation should be driven by likeminded powers pursual of common interests. While the deliverance of Indo Pacific strategy by few members have set the wheels in motion, it has also highlighted the course that is being taken up by these countries with each of them presenting their own unique aspiration, with France focusing on security issues primarily and Germany focusing on political issues.

The French published their Indo Pacific strategy in 2019, stressing on a region that is not dominated by any one power, and further emphasising on the importance of a “stable, multipolar rules based international order”. The strategy also identified cooperation towards environmental security as a key priority in the region. In September 2020, Germany announced formal policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific, to enable it to “actively contribute to shaping the international order in the Indo-Pacific”. The approach seeks to engage in prompting a pan-European strategic shift towards the region. It also illustrated its interest and commitment to a region where India is a key protagonist in further shaping the region.

Following suit, the Netherlands also released its policy document on the Indo Pacific region. The key emphasis focused on the need for greater cooperation between the EU and the countries in the region “for free passage and guarantee of maritime safety” and called for EU to speak more proactively on developments in the South China Sea, which are in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The publishing of the policy briefs of these major players within the blocs lays the trajectory for what’s in store for future. It reflects on the rising prominence of the strategic collaboration, maritime openness, and the detailed attention towards the Indo-Pacific region.

With Portugal taking reigns at the EU council presidency, it remains to be seen what kind of effects will be brought in the perspective of the bloc towards the Indo- Pacific. In a recent appearance at the Raisina dialogue organized by the Ministry of External Affairs and Observer Research Foundation, Augusto Santos Silva, Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs accentuated on how the personal experiences of the European states will add to the richness of the dynamics. He also emphasised on the inside-outside factor, meaning that Portugal from within the bloc and U.K. from outside the bloc have a complementary relationship in strengthening the maritime geopolitics. With the Biden administration at helm, asserting its global leadership and engaging multilateral organisation at a greater speed several efforts have have been taken up to recalibrate the EU-USA relationship. This EU-USA relation along with India-EU and China-EU will go a long way in determining the Indo-Pacific strategy.

EU’s New Dynamics with Asia: The Piece in the Puzzle

The Union has since its inception been focused on managing the internal economic recovery and development, while the US took over as the superpower with the influence of the European powers in Asia pointedly retreating. With passing of time, the growing economic and strategic importance of Asia for Europe is further demonstrated by the EU Global Strategy, which explicitly addresses the direct connection between European prosperity and Asian security and produced the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy to enhance sustainable, comprehensive, and rules-based connectivity between European and Asian societies. Among the EU’s Asian partners, Japan particularly encourages a growing European role in the Indo-Pacific.

Moving beyond the traditional economic cooperation, the EU’s India strategy that came out in 2018 highlighted the bloc’s interest in jointly promoting peace and security, and strategically rallying their agenda to reinforce a rules-based order. India has witnessed deepened maritime partnership with France since 2018 and the decision to join Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism is another forward step in the cooperation. The recently conducted three-day multi-lateral maritime exercise ‘La Pérouse’, involving the navies of France, Australia, Japan, US and India shows the further internationalisation of the Indo-Pacific construct. The EU could contribute to regional stability in the Indo-Pacific by coordinating already existing military presences by enhancing it in near future. Within the diverse strongholds of EU, there exist small territorial groupings for Nordic nations and even the Central Europe’s Visegrad Four, which have ensured recent collaborations with India and improving ties further.

Way Forward

The European Union Council adopting the Conclusions on “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” breaks new ground. Along with improving its presence in the region, the bloc will cooperate with likeminded partners to uphold basic rights in the region. In a statement, the foreign ministers of the EU stated, “The approach and engagement will be principled with a long-term perspective, 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”. These papers have set a fundamental precedent of the strategy that would be finalised in the near future.

In moving forward, the European Union will not look at replacing the power scheme but turn itself in bolstering the security and rules-based order. The bloc attaches special importance to human rights, trade, and maritime openness. In the coming future, it can be seen as a key representative of the international community, aiming to avoid impediments in the multiplying partnerships. The European Union’s Indo-Pacific strategy will be driven by the desire to increase the security in the region, more than containing China. The representatives in the region have time and again reiterated the same. It remains to be seen whether the EU aims at prioritising the sea lanes for its trade incentives or to establish itself as a superpower.

*The author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS)