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EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

The European Union (EU) adopted the Indo-Pacific draft strategy in April 2021. This is EU’s remarkable advance towards strengthening its engagement with this geostrategic region. What the strategy is about and how it affects the region are drawing attention of the international community.

Strategic context

The Indo-Pacific region is rich in natural resources and possesses the most important sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the world and region, making it as a geostrategic region in both economic, political, and military terms. The region is home to 60 per cent of the world’s population and dynamic economies, which are able to respond rapidly to all situations. According to many analysts, those who can take control of the Indo-Pacific region will basically control the world.

The shift of strategic focus from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indo-Pacific has started since early 21st century and been driven by China’s rise, India’s increased economic and strategic influence, the growth of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and increasing importance of the Indian Ocean. It is within this context that the concept of an inclusive and open Indo-Pacific has been put forth by regional countries with the aim to respond to challenges and take advantage of opportunities. American President proclaimed at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in 2017 that the United States regarded the Asia-Pacific region as a strategic choice and key to its national security and interests. Therefore, it has developed the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.” In the meantime, China, Russia, and Iran form a “new triangle of sea power.” According to international analysts, competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific Ocean is likely to be further enhanced. Major powers adopt different approaches to the Indo-Pacific region. After its withdrawal from the European Union (Brexit), the United Kingdom also signaled “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific region last March, revealing its huge attention to this region.

The European Union (EU) is also not an exception. EU’s foreign ministers approved the Indo-Pacific draft strategy at a meeting held in April 2021 with a view to establishing a firm presence for its member states in a region considered a key driver of global politics and economy. Prior to this strategy, EU’s central of gravity basically focuses on Eastern Europe, the Atlantic or transatlantic relations. Essentially, EU seeks to promote trade and investment through its engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. German, Europe’s economic engine, only encourages constructive cooperation with China by means of the so-called policy of “change through trade.”

Fundamental contents

The Indo-Pacific strategy not only enables EU to strengthen its cooperation with countries but also facilitates its adaptation and establishment of cooperative relations on the basis of mutual benefits. This guides the development of a strategic framework with a series of political solutions to the region, formation of linking points, and strengthening of cooperation in concrete fields, including national defence and security.

One of EU’s strategic focuses in the Indo-Pacific region is to promote cooperative relations with ASEAN Member States (AMSs) in various fields. This is because of the fact that ASEAN includes dynamic developing economies. The region has the shortest SLOCs connecting countries in Indian Ocean, Europe, and Africa with those in Asia and Oceania. ASEAN-led security mechanisms such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN-Plus, ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), ASEAN Political Security Community (APSC), etc., are regularly broadened and improved both in scale, degree, and quality, creating spaces for open dialogue and confidence building in Indo-Pacific region.

Apart from enhancing cooperation with ASEAN, EU’s strategy is also considered a response to US’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy. In fact, this is a plan to counter China’s rise while helping EU and US to gain the upper hand in the region. EU and US have long accused China of secretly carrying out the String of Pearls or Maritime Silk Road stretching from southern regions of China to Indian Ocean. The concept of “String of Pearls” was first mentioned by a military advisor at the Pentagon in 2004 when he implied that China’s operations in the Indian Ocean Rime was like establishment of military bases. According to American military experts, the “String of Pearls” lays the foundation for China to control all vital SLOCs in Asia and the world, contain India, Japan, and South Korea, and get an advantage when this country has direct access to strategic positions in the Pacific Ocean. Moreover, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are also factors, which restrain US’s and EU’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. Consequently, in the coming time, EU will have to collaborate with US to promote defence and security ties with allies with the aim to ensure security in waters stretching from Japan to Indian Ocean and the SLOCs to Africa. Additionally, to create a counterweight to the “new triangle of sea power” requires EU to speed up cooperation with the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between US, Australia, Japan, and India; support Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy, India’s “Act East Policy,” and Australia’s Indo-Pacific plan. It can be said that EU regards cooperation with allies within the Indo-Pacific strategy as a key mission, thereby operationalising the strategy to bring about benefits for this bloc.

Implications for the region

Although it has not become a concrete strategy, fundamental contents of the Indo-Pacific strategy will enable EU to consolidate its centre of gravity and operations in the region on the basis of promoting democracy and international law. Accordingly, EU will enhance investment and may expand its security coverage to Indo-Pacific region. Bilateral cooperation will be also broadened to cover a wide range of issues, including trade, investment, response to climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic as well as national defence and security, especially in terms of maritime security, transnational terrorism, false information, and organised crimes.

EU diplomats believe that this strategy does not aim to “fight China” but seeks to work with “like-minded partners” to promote an open, multilateral, rules-based regional order in the Indo-Pacific to uphold basic rights and create a level playing field in the world. In other words, this region will be conducive to international cooperation and welcome players on the basis of respecting international law. According to analysts, EU’s approval of the Indo-Pacific draft strategy will make it difficult for China to champion the position that maritime disputes in the region are only bilateral issues between China and other claimants; outsiders should not meddle in these issues. The strategy has direct influence on China’s goal to become a superpower because EU can involve itself in regional security and trade. In addition, the strategy also enables countries in Indo-Pacific region, especially the AMSs, to enhance bilateral cooperation with the EU countries in all fields, thus reducing excessive dependence on major powers, particularly in security. At the same time, this strategy will enable Japan, South Korea or AMSs, which wish to uphold their substantive relationships with China in economic terms and with US in security, to adopt more flexible solutions.

Prior to this strategy, some EU member states had already done so at national level, with an emphasis on security. France, which is the vanguard in formulating the Indo-Pacific strategy, also produced a general report about security issues. One of the issues mentioned in this report is that France has many territories in the Indo-Pacific region such as Mayotte, Reunion Island, New Caledonia, and Polynesia, thus possessing the world’s second largest exclusive economic zone in the region. In the time to come, France plans to deploy about 8,000 soldiers and tens of warships to several important bases in the Indo-Pacific, which accounts for nearly 60 per cent of France’s military force oversea. This force potentially becomes rapid response units in case of emergencies in the region. Additionally, in 2020, the German government released a document entitled “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region.” This country plans to send a warship to Asia in August 2021. The ship will sail the East Sea to signal its support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region. It is the first time within two decades a German warship will travel through waters in this region. EU’s increasing involvement in the Indo-Pacific region is inevitable due to the region’s strategically high tension. According to international experts, EU’s approval of the Indo-Pacific strategy potentially creates an inclusive open multilateral regional mechanism. However, it may escalate strategic rivalry among major powers in the Indo-Pacific, affecting long-term interests of regional countries. What the outcomes of the race to set up order in the East Sea will be like in the future draws the special attention of the international community.


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