TCSS Security Commentaries #026

EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific outlines seven priority areas that could be considered a continuation and arguably a replacement for the 2018 EU Asia Strategy.

Lina Laur, Sciences Po Paris

G7 leaders meeting with Ukraine President Zelenskyy. (Source: Twitter)

On June 28, the G7 summit came to an end. The announcement of a new investment plan initiated by US President Joe Biden to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) stands out as the key feature of the summit. The new plan, along with Narendra Modi’s recurrent presence at the forum for several years, illustrates the renewed interests of western countries in the Asian region. In this continuity, it is critical to explore the European strategy for the Indo-Pacific and outline its recent geopolitical refinement in the momentum of the Ukraine invasion.

Firstly, the Indo-pacific region is delimited by the Pacific and the Indian oceans from the “East coast of Africa to the Pacific Islands states.” It is an area of great significance for the European Union. It is home to over 1.2 million of its citizens (notably through French overseas territories), and strategic trade flows, straits, and ports are key for economic development. The EU is the “top investor, top development assistance provider and big trading partner for the region.” Maintaining the region’s stability and ensuring “a free and open indo-pacific” became crucial to preserving European interests.

Against such a backdrop, the European Council approved the EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in April 2021. In September of the same year, it was followed by a joint communication from the Commission and the VP/HR. It formulates a clear strategy that could be considered a continuation and arguably a replacement for the 2018 EU Asia Strategy. The strategy outlines seven priority areas, from sustainable and inclusive prosperity to human security. The other main areas are green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnership, digital connectivity, security, and defense. To support this strategy, the EU relies on important policy instruments, among which the most notable is the Global Gateway program with a budget of 300 billion euros to invest in development and infrastructure until 2027; the Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, which encompasses a large focus on the Indo-Pacific and even the European Green Deal offering significant possibilities regarding energy transition. More recently, on June 7, 2022, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution by the EPP deputy MC Callister, updating the EU international strategy in light of the Ukraine war.

Indeed, the tragic invasion of Ukraine provoked a change of perspectives in the diplomatic landscape of the Indo-pacific region. Confirming this, Gabriele Visentin, the European Union (EU) special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, recently claimed: “the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific can be seen through a pre-and post-Ukraine lens.” The war offered new opportunities for the EU to establish itself as a reliable partner in the region amidst US-China competition, as suggested/supported by a recent poll by ISEAS.

However, to enforce its strategic autonomy, the EU needs to become more self-reliant, notably in the defense and military field. The outbreak of the war highlighted the EU’s insufficiencies regarding military equipment and, consequently, its excessive reliance on the US. In December 2021, a European Defence Agency (EDA) report highlighted the lack of EU defense expenditure. As a response, some member countries decided to increase their military capabilities. Germany, for example, recently announced it would invest up to 2% of its GDP in the defense sector. The June 7 resolution also highlighted the EU’s need to create a common defense capability that would better assist member countries and partners and complement NATO forces.

Despite the EU’s current focus on the war in Ukraine, it wishes to continue to engage in the Indo-Pacific to protect its interests and values. The recent resolution takes note of the current geopolitical challenges and the long-term consequences of the war. Most notably, it underlines the general concern about the Chinese rapid military build-up and “increasing multi-faced threats and competition among powers” represented by the US and Russia. Moreover, it emphasizes the importance of the links created with its main regional partners, which the EU wishes to consolidate and strengthen. It includes India, Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, and the Philippines. Nevertheless, the obstacles to full-scale and long-term implementation of the EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific remain real. It has been particularly pushed by countries like Germany and France, as it aligns with their national strategies for the Indo-Pacific. Still, many EU countries have yet to make it a priority.