Europe Eyes the Indo-Pacific, But Now It’s Time to Act
During his visit last week to Europe, President Joe Biden sought greater alignment between the United States and its European allies on policy toward China and the Indo-Pacific. In some respects, he was successful. NATO identified China as presenting “systemic challenges,” and the European Union agreed to work with the United States toward a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” But Europeans have been thinking strategically about the region for some time now. France, Germany and the Netherlands have adopted Indo-Pacific strategies, while the United Kingdom has outlined the pillars of its “Indo-Pacific tilt” in its integrated review. Even the European Union has signaled its strategic shift to the region by issuing a preliminary strategy, which will be formally adopted in September of this year.
Even though European countries are not fully aligned with America’s approach of competition with China across policy fields, for Europe’s partners, including the United States and those in the region, this is still an encouraging sign. European countries have, in the past few decades, largely limited their interest in the Asia-Pacific to economic ties, focusing predominately on China. But times are changing. China is still in focus, but for altogether different reasons. While most European leaders speak of China-related challenges in hushed terms, it is obvious that it is the cause of their concerns over Indo-Pacific stability. European countries now seek to “diversify” their partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, doubling down on countries like India and Japan. There are clear points of convergence between Europe’s various approaches to the region — from geographic scope to policy principles these countries seek to promote and partners they want to work with.
The first hurdle has been cleared: European policymakers have begun to see China in a new light and have realized that developments in the Indo-Pacific will impact Europe. But Europe should now move beyond expressions of interest in the Indo-Pacific. Resources and capabilities are limited and unevenly spread. How coordination at the E.U. level and with the United Kingdom will occur remains unclear. Infrastructure initiatives like the E.U.-Asia connectivity strategy, through which Europe can make a real contribution to the Indo-Pacific, have languished too long in the corridors of Brussels and need funding now. While Europe has reinvigorated its partnerships with India, Japan, and Australia, it is still behind the curve on engaging the new U.S. administration. An effective European Indo-Pacific strategy will have to be based on providing alternatives to Chinese investments, public goods — from concrete help like capacity building and the provision of vaccines to broader support for international rule of law — and pursing partnerships in new formations. Unless Europe is able to deliver on all these counts, its strategies will remain paper tigers.
European Strategies on the Indo-Pacific: Similarities and Differences
Not all European engagement is created equal. Two countries clearly lead the pack. France was the first European country to champion the idea of engaging with the Indo-Pacific, with government officials publicly arguing for a strategic presence in the region since 2016. The reasons are straightforward. France has overseas territories both in the Indian Ocean (La Réunion, Mayotte, and the Scattered Islands) and in the Pacific (New Caledonia and French Polynesia), and 93 percent of France’s Exclusive Economic Zone is located in the Indo-Pacific. The region is also home to 1.5 million French citizens and 8,000 permanently stationed French soldiers. Unsurprisingly, France was the first European country to formally adopt an Indo-Pacific strategy, captured in three documents issued by its Ministry for the Armed Forces (in 2018 and subsequently updated), and the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs (June 2019 and another in April 2021 specifically on partnerships).
As part of its overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific, the United Kingdom counts the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific Ocean. At least 1.7 million British citizens live across the Indo-Pacific. The United Kingdom also has historical ties to the region through the Commonwealth of Nations and the Five Power Defence Arrangements with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore. In addition to this, the United Kingdom has military assets across the Indo-Pacific, including the British Indian Ocean Territory (leased out to the United States), as well as bases and support and training facilities in Oman, Bahrain, Singapore, Kenya, and Brunei. Though its intelligence-sharing arrangement is global, the United Kingdom’s four partners in the Five Eyes alliance reside in the region: the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The Indo-Pacific’s importance to the alliance members is evidenced by their growing policy coordination on China, though New Zealand remains hesitant, and reported interest in exploring adding members like Japan.
For the rest of Europe, the concept of the Indo-Pacific as a strategic and interconnected region has been tenuous at best. By and large, Europe associated the Indo-Pacific with the Trump administration and the deeply unappealing path of confrontation with China. However, tensions with China rose during the COVID-19 crisis and an increasingly bellicose Beijing made Europe realize that many of the challenges it faces today — from concerns around the security of Chinese technology and disinformation to punitive and coercive economic tools — are similar to those faced by partners like Australia, New Zealand, India, and Japan. Relations have now hit an all-time low with U.K. and European sanctions on China over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Europe’s export-driven economies are looking to diversify their economic, political, and security partnerships. The European Union is the largest trade partner and investor for most Indo-Pacific economies, although it is quickly losing its position to China. Domestic debates have shifted swiftly. All European strategies on the Indo-Pacific argue that Europe has a stake in the region’s stability. A majority of Europe’s trade and energy resources traverse through sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, and Europe’s security and prosperity are directly impacted by dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.
But beyond these broad areas of commonality, each country’s approach to the region differs in terms of which partners and areas they want to prioritize (for example France is keener on engagement in the Indian Ocean region); to what extent they are willing to risk China’s ire (particularly relevant in the case of Germany, which has followed a very careful approach of engaging with China); and how they view U.S.-Chinese competition. This creates the potential for Europe to have an uncoordinated and possibly ineffective role in the region.
European Indo-Pacific strategies focus on “diversification” of regional partnerships beyond China. All strategies recognize the key importance of India: In fact, all 27 European countries held a rare leaders’ summit with India on May 8 focusing on trade, technology, and security in the Indo-Pacific. Four days prior, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed on a “2030 road map” in a bid to overhaul and reimagine the U.K.-Indian partnership. There is likewise agreement in European Indo-Pacific strategies on the importance of Japan and Australia.
But European strategies also underscore and build on the European Union’s strategic partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). While Germany’s focus lies in strengthening ASEAN-centred institutions, the United Kingdom, having left the European Union, has successfully gained ASEAN’s blessing to re-join as an “ASEAN dialogue partner.” France and the United Kingdom have also begun strengthening bilateral ties with specific Southeast Asian states like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Overall, European countries see value in joining forces with “middle powers” to fill a perceived strategic vacuum left by the competition between the United States and China.
Perhaps the most interesting developing in the Indo-Pacific has been the emergence of new trilateral, quadrilateral, and minilateral groupings of countries around specific issues or values. European strategies seek to engage with these new coalitions to varying degrees. France has been the deftest in its approach so far, deepening its bilateral partnerships with the Quad countries and engaging in trilateral formats with India and Australia. The United Kingdom has sought to reinvigorate its multilateral defense agreement with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore — the Five Power Defence Arrangements — though details remain scarce. In its integrated review, London also proposed working within a network of like-minded partners and groupings. The European Union, meanwhile, mentions close coordination with “those partners that already announced Indo-Pacific approaches of their own” but doesn’t mention how this will be done.
Policy Areas in Focus
But what of the practical areas of cooperation where Europe has the capacity and can add value regional security and prosperity? London and Paris see the most ambitious roles for themselves. The United Kingdom claims it “will be the European partner with the most broad and integrated presence in the Indo-Pacific” and France seeks to act as a “an inclusive and stabilizing mediating power” in the region. Other European countries seek a more modest increase in diplomatic representation and engagement in the multilateral architecture. All European strategies acknowledge the need to uphold a rules-based order, though the United Kingdom goes further by seeking to shape it.
Maintaining peace and security on the seas is vital to all European countries issuing Indo-Pacific strategies thus far. However, the extent of engagement varies. France has consistently sent its ships to the region as part of its Jeanne d’Arc helicopter carrier mission as well as using its surveillance frigates based in New Caledonia. In addition to its previous naval deployments, the United Kingdom’s carrier strike group, led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, departed from Portsmouth on May 23 for her maiden voyage to the Indo-Pacific. More are joining in the region. The Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen will join the United Kingdom’s carrier strike group to Japan and all bets are on a South China Sea transit featuring freedom of navigation operations. Germany will step up naval diplomacy and will be deploying its frigate Bayern to the region in August 2021, with planned port calls in India, Japan, and Australia and a transit through the South China Sea. Germany has also set up a 2+2 ministerial dialogue with Japan.
Beyond this, however, Europe’s capacity for military power projection into the Indo-Pacific is limited. Therefore, taking action on challenges like non-proliferation, climate change, illegal fishing, piracy, and transnational organized crime feature prominently in all of the strategies. The United Kingdom and the European Union also specifically mention cyber security in their Indo-Pacific strategies, with the United Kingdom recently also announcing £22 million ($31 million) of new investment in building cyber security resilience in developing countries with a particular focus on the Indo-Pacific and Africa.
A third area where Europe sees a role for engagement in the region is in providing alternatives to Chinese investments through the Belt and Road Initiative, particularly when it comes to physical and digital infrastructure. France, Germany, and the Netherlands all indicate that “connectivity” is an important aspect of their strategies, both bilaterally and through the E.U.-Asia connectivity strategy. In fact the European Union likes to stress that its assistance, totaling €414 billion ($495 billion)q in grants, is comparable to the €434 billion in loans that China has offered through the Belt and Road Initiative. The United Kingdom also mentions in its Integrated Review the strategic use of its overseas development aid in the region and investments in quality infrastructure, though its aid budget has shrunk from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of gross national income. Even in the context of the G7, U.K. and E.U. members committed to the new “Build Back Better World” initiative to fund high-quality infrastructure projects around the world.
This European action has everything to do with concerns about China’s attempts to exert influence by building stronger political links with governments in the Indo-Pacific and setting illiberal and unsustainable standards through its hard and soft infrastructure. These concerns range from illiberal standards in digital connectivity in terms of privacy and data flows, to possible surveillance opportunities and infrastructure of both civilian and potentially military use, as well as financially and environmentally unsustainable projects. Europe’s rush to fill the infrastructure gap is not an exercise in altruism. European countries increasingly seek to be active players in the global standard-setting business.
Role of U.S.-Chinese Competition
While all of this may sound in line with America’s approach, Europe’s turn to the Indo-Pacific should not be mistaken for all-out alignment with Washington. All of the European Indo-Pacific strategies characterize themselves as “inclusive,” keeping room for cooperation with China when and where it plays by international rules and norms. An overtly anti-China coalition remains unappealing and decoupling unrealistic.
European views on what role the United States should have in the Indo-Pacific is also not clearly or obviously aligned across European strategy documents. France sees a clear role for the United States in the region and French priorities are compatible with America’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. Germany opposes both unipolarity and bipolarity in the Indo-Pacific and hardly mentions in its Indo-Pacific guidelines what role, if any, it expects the United States to play there. Between these two positions are European strategies, including in that of the European Union, which hope that Indo-Pacific strategies will help Europe avoid taking sides or strike equidistance between the United States and China, and that the strategies will position the European Union as a third-party alternative for countries in the Indo-Pacific. With the new Biden administration’s outreach to Europe and vows to renew the trans-Atlantic partnership, Europe will have to decide how much it wants to be seen as publicly aligning with America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, risking China’s ire.
Challenges to Europe’s Engagement in the Region
European interes t in the Indo-Pacific is welcome by countries in the region. In 2021 “state of Southeast Asia” survey, the European Union took the top spot as most trusted and preferred partner to hedge against the U.S.-Chinese strategic rivalry, ahead of Australia, Japan, India, and the United Kingdom. However, challenges lie ahead. Unequal levels of engagement in and understanding of the region means that European member states will need to work together to present a coherent and unified front. Given its limited hard-power projection capabilities, the European Union will need to leverage the strengths of the sum of its members. That might mean adopting a normative agenda, with a focus on multilateralism, technical expertise in various sectors, and improving ease of doing business in order to take advantage of the region’s burgeoning economies. But engagement in more sensitive matters surrounding human rights or regional security may not suit all E.U. member states or countries in the region in equal measure, particularly those wary of upsetting China. Consider Hungary, which recently blocked an E.U. statement criticizing China’s new national security law in Hong Kong.
How European countries will balance the Indo-Pacific with other priorities that are more immediate and closer to home may not be consistent. Even for the United Kingdom, which had signaled that the Indo-Pacific would be a priority region in its integrated review, the Euro-Atlantic region took the top spot as the country’s priority. Likewise, the integrated review identified the threat of Russia as the greatest and most immediate state-based threat to U.K. national security and China as the chief state-based threat to the United Kingdom’s economic security and a longer-term systemic challenge. Whether due to limited resources that hamper a significant presence in the Indo-Pacific, or limited political capital due to priorities simply lying closer to home (as is the case for Germany as well as the European Union), Europe must strike a delicate balance between pragmatism and principles in the Indo-Pacific.
For those European countries that share overarching concerns about stability and security at sea and in the air, however, a clarity of objective and power-projection capabilities will be required. Here, the reality of finite resources is a potential limiting factor. As an example of this, the United Kingdom’s integrated review ultimately focused more on diplomatic and economic efforts than military power projection in the Indo-Pacific. Even in the case of the latter, the Defence Command Paper hinted that London’s aims are modest in the short to medium term: It is planning the deployment to an as-of-yet unknown location in the Indo-Pacific of two offshore patrol vessels in 2021, a littoral response group in 2023, and Type 31 destroyers by 2030. As such, the European Union, its member states, and European partners would do well to identify flexible ways to collaborate, although working with smaller groupings of countries such as the E3 (the United Kingdom, Germany, and France) seems to be London’s preference.
There is already a history of cooperation in the form of U.K.-French military cooperation, including a dual-carrier exercise in the Mediterranean between the U.K. carrier strike group, the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, and NATO partners. There is willingness to cooperate, too, as exemplified by the inclusion of Italy, Portugal, and Denmark into the Charles de Gaulle mission to the region in 2019 and current Dutch participation in the U.K.-led carrier strike group deployment (CSG21). Indeed, the European Union is considering coordinating member states’ naval and air assets, on a voluntary basis, as a way of ensuring visible maritime presence around the globe.
However, European military engagement in the Indo-Pacific also has the potential to backfire. Many European countries are not familiar with the intricate security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. After Germany’s ministry of defense, for example, announced it would deploy a frigate to the region to demonstrate solidarity with “like-minded” partners like Japan, an overly cautious Berlin changed course. The ministry publicly announced that the ship would not sail within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese coast, unwittingly validating China’s unlawful claims to maritime territory at that distance, and would also miss an opportunity to do an exercise with the U.K. carrier group while in the region. Berlin also added an additional port visit to Shanghai, thereby diluting any symbolic significance of supporting “like-minded partners” that the mission might have had. Nor does it present a unified European position on the Indo-Pacific. Whether targeting audiences in Beijing or elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific, the delivery of a coherent narrative and consistency in messaging, backed-up by coordinated actions, is key for Europe. Last-minute placating of Beijing by member states like Germany calls into question whether the European Union can really achieve this.
Beyond the challenges of hard-power projection, the internal coordination across government departments in European countries will require constant investment. Europe continues to face a significant challenge in finding a single strategy on China, let alone for China and the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. Unlike the United Kingdom and France, most European ministries do not have an Indo-Pacific department. Instead, their approach to the region involves a mosaic of geographic and thematic departments that require significant coordination.
Finally, coalitions like the Quad are arguably one of the most important developments in the Indo-Pacific. Similar coalitions are emerging on supply chain security (India, Australia, and Japan), infrastructure initiatives to counter the Belt and Road Initiative (the Blue Dot Network with Australia, Japan, and the United States), and Indian Ocean security (India, France, and Australia). Navigating and engaging with these new groupings of countries, which increasingly characterize the Indo-Pacific, will be a major challenge for European players who are used to dealing with more formal institutions.
The Road Ahead
Europe should be engaged in the Indo-Pacific because the region’s stability directly impacts Europe’s prosperity. For European countries with territories and significant populations in the Indo-Pacific, the need to prioritize the region is crystal clear. Moreover, the United Kingdom and the European Union are already active in the region — from development assistance, capacity building, and helping countries know what and, more importantly, who is traversing their national waters, the list of ongoing projects is long. Having an Indo-Pacific strategy is an opportunity for European countries and the European Union to ensure that these programs align with national interests and priorities and, more importantly, respond to the most pressing needs of the region and support the efforts of its most vital regional partners. While European countries will not form a leading strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific, they can be supportive of resident powers like Australia, Japan, India, and the United States. Rather than seeking to match their presence, coordinated efforts and burden sharing among European states and with regional partners is the more prudent way forward. It would also make sense for Europe to identify sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific that are important to European countries. For example, not all European countries will be as interested in working in the South Pacific as France, but they can be more aligned and cooperate together in the Indian Ocean, which is closer to home.
Finally, by engaging in and with the Indo-Pacific European countries can provide alternatives to China on sources of trade, investment, and technology. It is encouraging to see the E.U. strategy and the United Kingdom’s integrated review discuss resilient supply chains and technology, global health, and connectivity. Here, Europe can join in key discussions around norms and standards and provide public goods. The European Union and the United Kingdom are both further developing their investment screening policies in order to protect their intellectual property, critical technologies, and critical national infrastructure and could assist countries in the Indo-Pacific in setting up similar mechanisms.
There are ways for Europe to meaningfully contribute to the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific, even with the limitations and resource constraints mentioned above. The bigger question is that of political will. Will a post-Merkel Germany shift its position on China, allowing Europe to take a stronger stance in support of its Indo-Pacific partners, including the United States? Will we see more inconsistent messaging from French President Emmanuel Macron, who, earlier this month, downplayed the importance of China’s mention in the NATO communique after hard-fought consensus? Will trade considerations ultimately prevent the United Kingdom from taking a hard line on China?
The mood in Europe over Beijing’s regional and global ambitions has shifted but policymakers will need to translate words into action. As the pandemic continues to dampen economic growth, political realities may necessitate a shift in priorities in Europe. Ultimately, if European countries cannot present a unified and coordinated front, their efforts will be fruitless. The collective strength of Europe is about to be tested in the Indo-Pacific.
Veerle Nouwens is a senior research fellow in the International Security Studies department of the Royal United Services Institute, where she leads the Indo-Pacific Programme and focuses on geopolitical relations in the Indo-Pacific region. Her research interests include China’s foreign policy, cross-strait relations, maritime security, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations
Garima Mohan is a fellow in the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, where she leads the work on India and heads the India Trilateral Forum. Her research focuses on India-Europe ties, E.U. foreign policy in Asia, and security in the Indo-Pacific.