As the eyes of the world are focused on Ukraine and on the return of war in Europe, senior officials from the US and China, Jack Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, met in Rome on March 15th to discuss “a range of issues in U.S.-China relations”, according to US sources. The Chinese side stressed the fact that the aforementioned meeting was scheduled before the war and that the reason for it was mainly to follow up the Xi-Biden video-summit of November 15th. What does this mean? It means that the primary concern for China and the US, even during the worst crisis in Europe in decades, is the bilateral relationship with each other, two superpowers now intertwined in a long-term competition for 21st century economic primacy. Bilateral relations were also the first issue raised during the video call between Biden and Xi Jinping held three days later, a confirmation that the war in Ukraine should be read within a broader context.
The main terrain for this confrontation is the Indo-Pacific, a theatre that rose to the top of the agenda of the key global policymakers in 2021, before the war in Ukraine understandably diverted the attention of the Europeans. At least three crucial relevant events affected the Indo-Pacific in 2021: the upgrading of the Quadrilateral Dialogue (QUAD) to the leaders’ summit, the birth of AUKUS and the publication of the EU’s Strategy.
Originally created in 2007 mainly to coordinate military exercises between Japan, India, Australia and the US, the Quad held its first summit at the leader level in a virtual format on March 12th 2021 and in person on September 24th. By that time, the focus of the Quad shifted from being just a security dialogue to a broader discussion encompassing “some of the world’s most pressing challenges,” like the pandemic, climate change, and critical and emerging technologies. Such an evolution opens the possibility of a further expanding its scope and membership to those who shared the so-called “Spirit of the Quad” under the Quad Plus format. However, the different members’ reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine cast a shadow on the stability of the framework, as India decided not to condemn Russia given its historical political and military relationship with Moscow.
The AUKUS is a trilateral security pact between the US, the UK and Australia that further strengthens a regional security architecture already characterised by the above-mentioned Quad and by the Anglophone intelligence alliance named Five Eyes, also comprising New Zealand and Canada. The creation of AUKUS, announced a few hours before the publication of the EU Strategy towards the Indo-Pacific, caused a diplomatic incident between the EU and the AUKUS members. This was not only due to the timing of the launch of the new pact but also to Canberra’s decision, supported by its two other AUKUS partners, to cancel a defence contract with France to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Such a decision demonstrates how pressing it is for the US to strengthen its military presence in the region, as it searches for an ever more stable security infrastructure there even to the detriment of its relationship with the European Union. The reason for such behaviour lies in the worsening of US-China relations and in the intensification of their geopolitical rivalry after the power centralisation process that began in China in 2017. The result of this process is that the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States published on February 11th 2022 is without any doubt targeted at containing China, since it states that US and allied efforts are aimed at preventing China from succeeding “in transforming the rules and norms that have benefited the Indo-Pacific and the world”.
The European approach, contained in the EU Strategy towards the Indo-Pacific presented on September 16th 2021 is different. Rather than directly confronting China, it prefers to focus on extending cooperation with regional partners. However, the need to protect communication lines and freedom of navigation is acknowledged by the EU strategy, as is the existence of geopolitical tensions, partly due to China’s growing militarisation. EU member states’ interest in the region emerged for the first time in 2018 when France adopted its Indo-Pacific strategy, followed by Germany and the Netherlands, which published their Indo-Pacific strategies in 2020. While the latter two have put a stronger focus on trade, France has territories in the region that make it - and consequently the EU - a regional power. France remains at the forefront of the EU’s own pivot to Asia also in 2022. Indeed, it is taking the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU as a chance to put its spin on European policies towards China and the Indo-Pacific. February 22th 2022 will go down in history as the day after the Russian recognition of the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk and Luhansk, but on that day foreign ministers from Europe and the Indo-Pacific gathered in Paris to attend the Ministerial Forum for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific organised by the French presidency – a meeting to which the US and China were not invited. It represents, so far, the maximum expression of the EU’s attempt to find its own place in the current rush for influence in the Indo-Pacific, both as a way to contain China’s rise and to establish strong partnerships with the world’s most dynamic economies.
Confrontation with China and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific involving Asian players, the EU and the US is therefore not only limited to building a new security architecture through new or renewed pacts like AUKUS and Quad, but it heavily relies on economic tools. Regional actors have already promoted several trade agreements such as TPP, CPTPP and RCEP, and both the Quad framework and the EU give a great importance to securing supply chains for critical and emerging technologies. As the EU aims to build more resilient value chains and complete trade agreements with various regional partners, in the first half of 2022 the US plans to unveil its economic strategy for the region, called “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework”.
Long-term commitments over the Indo-Pacific seems to prevail, at least partially, even during the war in Ukraine. Europe was on the verge of shaping a broad-based policy towards the region before the war erupted. As soon as the most urgent issues in Europe will be solved, hopefully peacefully, it will have to restart its dialogue in the region standing on its economic strength and on its territorial presence.
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.