Pivoting East? A New Chapter for the European Project in the Indo-Pacific
This is an introductory publication for the “Young Indo Pacific - Forward-looking perspectives on the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy” event series taking place from the 26th to the 28th of November, 2021. In this event, the three organizing think tanks - Polis180, European Guanxi and STEAR - with the support of several other youth organizations across Europe and Asia, will host multiple panel discussions on topics regarding the European Union’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and provide students and young professionals with a platform to be heard in international politics. Look out for more details coming soon!
Amidst the flurry of military and economic manoeuvres in the Indo-Pacific over the last year, mentions of the European Union have been notably absent from the headlines. From the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in December 2020 to China’s bid to join the CPTPP in September this year, economic issues have been looming large. Meanwhile, the formation of the AUKUS (Australia, UK and US) military partnership is just the latest gambit in the Pacific naval power play. In stark contrast, the EU has barely budged.
Attempting to redress its paucity of engagement in these strategic issues, on September 16 the EU published its own Strategy for Co-operation in the Indo-Pacific. In this article, we explain why it is so necessary for the world’s largest economic bloc to develop a strategy for engaging with countries on the other side of the world, and examine the state of play for furthering its engagement.
Amidst the fanfare of the United Kingdom’s ‘Global Britain’ policy and the Biden administration doubling down on President Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’, the EU’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific lacks the same degree of clarity as that of other relevant powers in the region. The freezing of the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) certainly points to the EU taking a stronger line on ensuring that its fundamental values are upheld by its partners in the region (Oertel & Small, 2020). However, EU institutions and member states remain much less vocal about formulating a coherent strategy for the region than their Transatlantic allies.
Part of this is perhaps due to the tendency of military partnerships to attract more of the spotlight than regulatory and investment initiatives. The recently signed AUKUS agreement, which deepened military cooperation in the South China Sea between Australia, the UK and the US, was notable for how it side-lined France without consideration for the consequences. With France hitherto being one of the leading European proponents of an active Indo-Pacific strategy, their apparent humiliation already seems to have become an obstacle for European involvement in the US-led development of a new regional architecture. Despite this, the EU does have the interests, as well as the means, for adopting a distinctive Indo-Pacific Strategy (Grare, 2021).
After all, stability of the EU’s trading links with East Asian countries has been dependent for some time on the multipolar ‘East Asian Peace’ which has reigned in the region for the past three decades. Disruptions caused by interstate military conflict or the emergence of China as a regional hegemon could threaten European supply chains and market access, so it is crucial that the EU develops strategies for responding to this risk. Additionally, many of the EU’s goals are dependent on having a strong presence in the region. In the realm of technology, access to the East Asian data markets is an indispensable part of developing competitive AI technologies. Furthermore, if the EU is to fulfill its climate goal of reducing global emissions, working with the vibrant East Asian economies in order to gain recognition for their sustainability plans will be very important (Oertel & Small, 2020).
Greatly overshadowed by the publication of the AUKUS agreement, the EU promulgated its own Indo-Pacific Strategy on 16th September 2021 in an attempt to clarify some of the murkier details of the EU’s approach to the region moving forward. The ‘Joint Communication on the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific’ begins with an explicit recognition of the rationale for a partnership between the EU and the relevant countries in the Indo-Pacific – including, but not limited to, the two regions’ mutual interests and deeply-embedded relationships in the area of trade and investment, the increasingly intense militaristic and geopolitical competition, and the increased awareness of the limited expression of democratic principles and human rights in some countries in the region. Hence, while open questions are abound regarding the tractability of the Union’s current approach to the Indo-Pacific,the very discussion of an EU Indo-Pacific Strategy serves as much needed recognition of the imperative for a joint plan of action in the region.
Yet, what is perhaps most striking about the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy is that it expresses the EU’s desire to be located firmly within the forum of relevant Indo-Pacific actors. The Joint Communiqué, for example, expresses a desire to "deepen [the EU’s] engagement with partners that already have Indo-Pacific approaches of their own - ASEAN, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States" (p. 4). The communiqué goes on to describe the EU’s desire to even engage with the QUAD, the quadrilateral security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, on common areas of interest in the region (ibid). Not only then does the EU desire to play a role in the Indo-Pacific region, but it aspires to play one of the pivotal roles on the geopolitical stage at large. While such expressions are perhaps consistent with the more general aspirations of the EU (External Action Service, 2016), two challenges promise to pose serious trouble for the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy down the line: (1) a lack of decisiveness regarding the treatment of China (Bergsen, 2021) and (2) the inherent institutional problem of the need for further internal cohesion.
Regarding the first of these challenges, it is worth noting that the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy expressed in the Joint Communiqué was preceded by the European Council’s own "Conclusions on an EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific," published on 16 April 2021. Problematically, this document not only made no mention of the EU’s policy towards China with regards to EU sanctions over human rights abuses, but it seems to have created a ‘China and all Others’ approach to the region, appearing to favor balancing against China’s rising power through deepening economic and diplomatic partnerships with other regional powers. The Joint Communication from the Commission and High Representative provides the following discussion:
“The EU will also pursue its multifaceted engagement with China, engaging bilaterally to promote solutions to common challenges, cooperating on issues of common interest and encouraging China to play its part in a peaceful and thriving Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, and working with international partners who share similar concerns, the EU will continue to protect its essential interests and promote its values while pushing back where fundamental disagreements exist with China, such as on human rights" (p. 4).
Given the track record of disagreements that these two powers have seen on these very issues, it is unclear precisely how the EU’s approach to China will materialize and develop. At best, it appears as though the Union would prefer to just have its cake and eat it too; to preserve economic relations with China, while condemning the national leadership’s departures from the international community’s defined global norms – including the protection of human rights, and ownership of violations therein, as well as the preservation of fair trade practices.
As for the second issue, although France, Germany and the Netherlands have all officially recognized the relevance of and need for a joint European Indo-Pacific Strategy through the publication of their own strategic guidelines for the region, there is still a pressing need for other Member States to push for such an initiative (France in Australia, 2021; Leitlinien zum Indo-Pazifik; Government of the Netherlands, 2020; Grare & Reuter, 2021). Given the EU’s unique institutional structure, particularly in comparison to the other relevant powers in the Indo-Pacific – for example, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – in order for the Union to push the envelope as an inter-state institution and join the Indo-Pacific forum, it will require the backing of more of its Member States.
Still, there is hope yet for the European project in Asia. While the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy remains unclear, and the problems of EU-China relations and internal cohesion persist, the EU appears to have at least the means to get a European Indo-Pacific initiative off the ground. As Spagnol notes, “The EU is, in fact, the world’s biggest trading block and its member states are the biggest trading partners of many countries in the Indo-Pacific region” (Spagnol, 2020). Thus, given the EU’s particular emphasis on “Advancing our economic agenda and protecting our supply chains” in its strategy (Council of the European Union, 2021, p. 7), the EU appears both ready and willing to wield its economic weight as a weapon in securing a seat at the Indo-Pacific table. What’s left to be seen then is how it does so, and what it chooses to do thereafter.
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