April 28, 2021 7:58:49 pm
Written By Sakti Prasad Srichandan
After the first Quad Summit in March 2021, it was expected that other regional and global actors would soon articulate their policies for the Indo-Pacific region, the new centre of geostrategic gravity. Recently, the Council of the European Union (EU) approved the long-awaited “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific — Council Conclusions”, outlining its strategic focus and actions with an aim towards “regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development”. In many senses, this reflects the reconfiguration of the EU’s Asia-Pacific approach to the Indo-Pacific, given the changing geopolitical situation. In Europe, apart from the United Kingdom’s “Indo-Pacific tilt”, EU member states like Germany, France, and the Netherlands have already articulated their Indo-Pacific strategy. The EU’s strategy, approved after consensus among its 27 member states, needs to be seen in the larger context of EU’s global power aspirations and the region’s changing dynamics due to China’s revisionist challenge to the rules-based international order.
The EU is not a traditional security actor in the Indo-Pacific. But, this region is home to five of its top 10 trading partners, and the sea lanes of this region ship a large volume of the EU’s international trade. France considers itself an Indo-Pacific power due to its overseas territories located in this region. Moreover, European nationals have a sizeable presence and EU companies have made impressive footholds in this region. Therefore, any disruption in the open and fair environment for trade and investment may negatively affect EU interests.
Unlike others, the EU’s strategy document has avoided naming and shaming anybody while acknowledging “intense geopolitical competition adding to increasing tensions on trade and supply chains as well as technological, political and security areas”. The embryo of the Indo-Pacific strategy of many regional and global actors might have developed out of an implicit anti-China stance, but the EU prefers a balancing act. The EU considers China, in the words of its foreign policy chief Josep Borell, a “partner, competitor and rival”. In recent years, China’s aggressive foreign policy and military adventures in its neighbourhood (called the Chinese version of Lebensraum), human rights violations in Xinjiang, imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, interventions in Taiwan and issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, have created a negative perception against China in the EU. In September 2020, the UK, along with France and Germany, had submitted a joint note verbale to the UN, challenging China’s claim on the South China Sea. Moreover, the disinformation campaign by Chinese diplomats, often called “Wolf-Warrior diplomacy”, irritated the EU leadership. Notwithstanding such hiccups in the relationship, in a balancing and inclusive approach, the EU has called for a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China, indicating that engaging Beijing is not necessarily an antithesis to its Indo-Pacific strategy.
The EU’s strategy calls for developing partnerships in security and defence. Its broad security agenda includes threats from malicious cyber activities, disinformation, emerging technologies, terrorism, organised crime, disaster prevention and recovery, piracy, trafficking, and economic and human effects of the pandemic. Reinventing its image as a maritime security actor, the EU is set to commit to a “meaningful” naval presence and cooperation with partner navies to comprehensively monitor maritime security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, in accordance with international law.
As expected, the strategy has followed the Quad line while calling for free, open, and secure maritime routes, a rules-based international order, upholding democratic values, and ASEAN’s centrality in the regional architecture. Learning from the pandemic, diversification of the global supply chains away from China is as vital for the EU’s economic resilience as for others. In this context, the EU can be a valuable partner in the region for its resources and expertise. The EU-Asia Connectivity strategy, considered the EU’s answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), can moderate China’s dominance while providing a sustainable alternative. The EU has concluded trade agreements with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and some Pacific countries. If revived and concluded successfully, the stalled trade negotiations with India can substantially enhance the EU’s foothold in the region.
A strategic partner like India can become an important pillar of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Whereas other countries have seen policy changes and adjustments with the change of political leadership, India has offered continuity and sophistication over the years. In the post-Brexit scenario, the forthcoming India-EU Summit scheduled to take place on May 8 will provide a platform for the consolidation of strategic partnership and provide an opportunity to enhance policy convergence on Indo-Pacific.
The EU is a normative power and promoter of values like democracy, rule of law, human rights and international law. The Quad grouping more or less espouses the same ideals for the Indo-Pacific. The EU can increase its visibility as a security actor in the region by responding to the geo-strategic “burden sharing” with other like-minded regional and global actors. The greater involvement of the EU and convergence of actions with other actors will strengthen and give further legitimacy to the call for a rules-based international order in the region frequently violated by an assertive China.
The writer is assistant professor at the Centre for European Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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