The timing has certainly been unfortunate. As the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell finally went public with details of the bloc’s much-anticipated new Indo-Pacific strategy on 15 September, 2021, world attention was focused on the unexpected announcement of a new trilateral military alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS).
When questioned about the deal, Borrell admitted he had no previous knowledge of the “Anglosphere” security pact. Angry French officials described the US decision to help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines – a deal which scuttled their own multimillion Euro planned sale of submarines to Australia – as a “stab in the back”.
Fast forward to 22 February, 2022, and it was rising tension over impending Russian military action in Ukraine which dominated the headlines, as EU foreign ministers met their counterparts from 30 Indo-Pacific countries in Paris to discuss an array of security, connectivity and trade relations.
Once again, international attention was on the clouds of war gathering over Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, not on the bloc’s ambitious Indo-Pacific agenda. Such are the vagaries of geopolitics, and the two developments underline the double challenge facing the EU as it seeks to step up its engagement in the Indo-Pacific. First, try as it might to chart an independent course of action in the region, the EU’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific are overshadowed by the strong US military presence in the region. Second, as long as the EU’s immediate neighbourhood remains troubled and volatile – and the EU’s relationship with Russia and most importantly NATO-Russia relations are not sorted out – the bloc’s 27 nations will have to juggle their regional obligations with their aspiration to play a more powerful global role. In most cases, the regional will take precedence over the global.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is of course in many ways a defining moment for the EU – with repercussions on global perceptions of the bloc.
The 27 countries have moved faster and more decisively than many imagined possible to approve an array of financial, energy, export and travel bans against Russia. These have included a freeze on Russian central bank assets, the shutdown of EU airspace to Russia, the removal of a number of Russian banks from the SWIFT international payments system, and sanctions on a clutch of Russian tycoons. In an unprecedented break with his country’s traditional stance, Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz has scrapped the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bring Russian natural gas into Germany, bypassing several other NATO-allied countries. Scholz has also dramatically boosted defence spending by committing $113 billion to a special armed forces fund after years of criticism from US Administrations for failing to hit a defence spending target of 2% of Germany’s gross domestic product. Additionally, in a complete reversal of Berlin’s long-standing and restrictive arms export policy as regards conflict zones, Germany has agreed to send arms to Ukraine.
Looking ahead, three questions emerge: First, does the EU’s focus on its neighbourhood mean reduced engagement in the Indo-Pacific? In other words, is the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy dead on arrival? Second, does the newfound transatlantic unity over Russian aggression against Ukraine also mean US-EU alignment in the Indo-Pacific, especially as regards relations with China? Third, will the EU find its place among regional powers playing hard security games in the Indo-Pacific or will its focus remain limited to the economic realm?
The short answer to the first question is “no”. The longer answer is still no – but let’s not be naïve, the EU’s first priority and most urgent concern is to end the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Engagement with the Indo-Pacific will therefore take a backseat – at least for the moment.
There is one caveat, however. The EU has been lobbying and will continue to lobby Indo-Pacific governments to voice stronger support for Western anti-Russian sanctions and other initiatives, including in the United Nations.
So far, Japan has been the strongest backer of EU sanctions, followed by South Korea, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. EU policymakers have voiced disappointment at the more muted stance taken by ASEAN (excepting Singapore of course).
India’s decision to abstain in the UN General Assembly vote on 2 March is a disappointment but not a surprise to EU policymakers, who have been working hard to deepen ties with Delhi, seeing democratic India as a counterweight to China, but now recognise the limitations of India’s openness to the West. Important changes in the EU’s previous warm and unquestioned embrace of India can therefore be expected.
The EU is seeking to win over ASEAN countries to its point of view by focusing on Russia’s disregard for the rules-based order, conformity with the United Nations Charter and arguments linked to the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and the inviolability of national borders, rather than the narrative of democracies vs autocracies which is favoured by the US.
Secondly, transatlantic relations have certainly recovered from the difficult “AUKUS moment”, and Western solidarity is strong in dealing with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. However, transatlantic scars left by the trilateral AUKUS alliance as well as America’s chaotic retreat from Afghanistan have not magically disappeared. There are also many who fear that Trump or someone like him could still move into the White House in the near future, once again endangering US-EU relations.
Also, despite the romanticised one-dimensional view of transatlantic relations as special, solid and all-weather – a narrative often peddled on both sides of the Atlantic –, the truth is that while the US and the EU can work together when their interests align, they are also permanent competitors and rivals, with very different priorities and concerns.
This is most obvious in business and trade – at both the bilateral and the multilateral level – but also in geopolitics.
The inconvenient truth is that all recent US presidents have viewed the EU as a junior partner that you turn to when you need help – for instance, to present a “joint front” to China or Russia – but can safely overlook when times are good. Joe Biden and AUKUS are a continuation of this. Also, even before the Russian aggression against Ukraine, France had been spearheading discussions on European “strategic autonomy”, an initiative now gathering even more momentum.
As regards China, the EU has not accepted the pressure to fall into line with the US framing of China as an ‘existential threat’, although EU attitudes towards China have been hardening following recent tit-for-tat sanctions over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which have endangered the ratification of the EU–China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment signed last year.
Still, China is vitally important for the EU’s economic recovery and global climate change mitigation ambitions. The focus in Brussels remains on dealing with China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival.
Given the current Russia-Ukraine context, the EU is hoping – and working to ensure – that despite recent declarations of Russia-China friendship, Beijing does not align itself completely with Moscow. As such, EU policymakers are also wary of making any parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan.
Finally, while the EU has now clearly developed more geopolitical clout and has announced several important security initiatives, such as the concept of a coordinated maritime presence in the north-west Indian Ocean which will allow the EU to optimise naval deployments, including through joint maritime exercises and port calls, the bloc’s focus in the Indo-Pacific is likely to remain on non-traditional security and economic cooperation.
Cooperation with the Quad in areas such as technology standards and vaccine outreach is envisaged.
As competition heats up on setting new standards for global trade, connectivity and data exchanges, the EU’s new toolbox for the region focuses on the bloc’s market and regulatory power in areas such as the Blue Economy, climate change-related Green Deal initiatives, digital transformation and the provision of “high quality” connectivity networks through the Global Gateway.
Indo-Pacific countries will be able to count on EU partnership and engagement in the future, in both military and economic spheres. But domestic and regional problems triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine will take priority.
This booklet is promoted within the fourth edition of the Asia & Europe Initiative "Stability and Security in the Indo-Pacific: The US, Japan, the EU and the Elephant in the Room" which gathers together leading experts, Asian and European think thank representatives, as well as Italian companies and agencies to discuss the increasing geopolitical interest in the Indo-Pacific Region.