by Dr. Sebastien Goulard

Following the announcement of the Global Gateway programme in the State of the Union delivered by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, unveiled the EU Indo-Pacific strategy on 16th September 2021. This unveiling revealed more details about the strategy that had been announced in April 2021.

EU and the Indo-Pacific

The Indo-Pacific region itself is a new principle, introduced by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, as a replacement for the Asia Pacific region to include India and counterbalance China’s growing influence. This principle has subsequently been adopted by European countries since 2016, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. However, as shown by Frédéric Grare and Manisha Reuter (ECFR), EU countries do not have the same definition of the Indo-Pacific region and do not share the same objectives, Some see the EU Indo-Pacific strategy as a way to counter Chinese influence, others as a possible tool to better cooperate with China. The main EU objective is to go beyond defence-centred strategies (that already include ‘Enhancing Security Cooperation In and With Asia: ESIWA) and offer a strong economic dimension.

The Indo-Pacific region has become increasingly important for Europe. It is now the second destination for EU exports after non-EU European countries (United Kingdom, Norway and Switzerland). To increase trade, the EU has been negotiating several Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with Asian countries. In 2011, the EU and South Korea signed an FTA, in 2019 another FTA was ratified between the EU and Singapore, and the Economic Partnership (EPA) between the EU and Japan started to be effective. In 2020, another FTA was ratified with Vietnam.

Among Indo-Pacific countries, China still remains the most important partner. This is why in December 2020, China and the EU signed the Comprehensive Investment Agreement (that is still to be ratified). The Indo-Pacific strategy is also a tool for reducing dependence on China (that EU once described as a ‘systemic rival’) and rebalancing relations with other Asian countries.

The strategy

The EU Indo-Pacific strategy is not all about defence, although security is an important element. A major dimension of the strategy emphasizes the promotion of human rights and democracy. The lack of governance has been an important obstacle to trade agreements between the EU and some Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries such as Thailand and Myanmar. The EU Indo-Pacific strategy is a comprehensive programme that aims at strengthening relations between EU and Asia in several sectors. The EU has identified seven areas of cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region:

  • Sustainable and inclusive prosperity, to promote responsible business conduct and build resilient supply chains
  • Green transition, to work on biodiversity protection and clean energy
  • Ocean governance, to sustainably manage fish resources in the Indian and Pacific oceans
  • Digital governance and partnerships, to continue to facilitate digital trade between Europe and regional partners, and develop hi-tech together
  • Connectivity, to promote dialogue on transportation and digital connectivity based on a ‘sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based’ approach
  • Security and defence, to share intelligence, protect maritime routes and fight against terrorism and cybercriminality
  • Human security, to facilitate cooperation in the health sector and coordinate responses to disasters.

EU partners in the Indo Pacific region

The EU is ready to work with every party in the Indo-Pacific region. Japan has been an EU special partner since September 2019 and is a signatory of the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure. However, Japan is not the only county on which the EU relies to develop its Indo-Pacific strategy. India is another important partner of the strategy and cooperation between the two parties is conducted in many different sectors including energy, data, defence and environment.

Borrell also highlights the centrality of ASEAN countries in this strategy. Like the EU, the ASEAN are willing to find a balance between the US and China. Although they see that China’s power is growing, they understand that they can use China’s market and investment to achieve their own goals.

The EU also shares many common interests in Australia and New Zealand regarding security and trade.

The EU continues to see China as a major partner for cooperation although the 27 member states still show concerns about governance issues in China. It is important that the EU Indo-Pacific strategy is not seen as a threat by China. The EU needs to encourage dialogue and cooperation with all parties.

Some obstacles

In spite of being the world’s second largest economy, the EU is still regarded as an outsider in the Indo-Pacific region. It is no accident that Borrell’s announcement was overshadowed by the new Australia, UK and US alliance (AUKUS) unveiled on 15th September 2021 without any prior consultation with Brussels. Indo-Pacific countries have limited trust in the EU for everything that is not trade.

Tensions are growing in the Indo-Pacific region and the EU may have neither the power nor the willingness to get involved in local disputes, as there is a lack of consensus among EU members regarding the level of EU commitment in the Indo-Pacific. Only France has some territorial presence in the region, with (from west to east) Mayotte, Reunion Island, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia, totalling almost 1.7 million inhabitants. Some other European countries with medium-sized naval capacities, including Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, regularly or occasionally conduct navy patrols in the area. However, for a majority of EU members, the Indo-Pacific is not a region of primary interest and as a consequence they rely on Washington for most issues regarding the region. It is also worth mentioning that the newly launched AUKUS alliance does not include any EU power. This shows that the US does not see the EU as a possible partner in the Indo-Pacific region.

Some aspects of the EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific may be implemented along with the newly launched Global Gateway programme. However, it is not yet decided how the actions conducted within the Indo-Pacific strategy will be financed, although resources may come from the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) and the European Fund for Sustainable Development (EFSD).

EU Indo-Pacific strategy
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