The European Union (EU) released its Indo-Pacific strategy called – “EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific - Council Conclusions” in April 2021. The strategy represented the acknowledgment by the Union of the emerging geopolitical context of the Indo-Pacific and, the challenges and opportunities this region presents. The Conclusions are intended to “reinforce its [EU] strategic focus, presence and actions in the Indo-Pacific with the aim of contributing to the stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development of the region, based on the promotion of democracy, rule of law, human rights and international law.”[i] It goes on to acknowledge the current dynamics in the region that have “given rise to intense geopolitical competition...developments that increasingly threaten the stability and security of the region and beyond, directly impacting on the EU’s interests.”[ii]
Why Indo-Pacific Strategy?
For the EU, the importance of the Indo-Pacific region cannot be underestimated – it represents the world’s economic and strategic centre of gravity. The Conclusions define the region as “encompassing the geographic area from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island States”[iii]. It is home to 60% of the world’s population producing 60% of global GDP, contributing two-thirds of current global growth. Also the region hosts four of the EU’s strategic partners – China, India, Japan and the Republic of Korea. European countries are also actively involved in the region through networks of trade and investment. The EU’s trade in goods with Asia amounted to €1.8 trillion in 2018 and FDI amounting to Asia is €90 billion[iv]. As a major part of its trade passes through the sea lanes of Indian and Pacific Oceans, “the secure free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law, in particular UNCLOS, in the interest of all”[v] is emphasised in the strategy.
The EU has also identified the region as critical for achieving sustainable development goals and climate change targets. While the EU shares multi-faceted relations with the countries of the region, the Conclusions are aimed at bringing “added-value to relations with all its partners…significantly contributing to development and humanitarian assistance, tackling climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, concluding ambitious free trade agreements, and contributing to the upholding of international law including human rights and freedom of navigation”[vi]. The Conclusions are also an outcome of the changing perception of China within the EU and its member states. Although, the strategy does not name the country explicitly, it alludes to the challenge concerning the geopolitical competition, universality of human rights, issues related to supply chains, connectivity and rule of international law.
The Conclusions highlight the EU’s broad-based agenda for the region. The priority is given to working with partners to promote rules-based multilateralism. It stresses enhanced cooperation with like-minded partners and key stakeholders of the region to address challenges ranging from security of maritime and aviation routes, economic growth, migration, sustainable management of natural resources, climate change etc. It calls for enhanced engagement with the regional organisations specifically ASEAN reiterating its centrality to the stability of the region, a stand that corresponds with India’s Indo-Pacific vision. Indian Ocean Rim Association, ASEM, Pacific Island Forum and the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific and the Pacific Community are also mentioned for furthering its political and strategic engagement.
One of the key aspects in the Conclusion is the emergence of the EU as the security actor. A number of security challenges in the Indo-Pacific such as maritime security, non-proliferation, cyber-security, disruptive technologies, counterterrorism etc. are highlighted in the Conclusion. Of all these issues, the emphasis is placed on establishing maritime area of interest in the Indo-Pacific to establish a “comprehensive monitoring of maritime security and freedom of navigation, according to international law, in particular UNCLOS, and taking action to ensure environmental security in the area.”[vii] To achieve this, the EU seeks greater engagement between European and Asian navies and enhanced maritime domain awareness. While the EU has substantial experience through EUNAVFOR Atalanta in the Indian Ocean, it plans to extend the geographic scope of CRIMARIO II from the Indian Ocean to South and Southeast Asia to contribute to safer sea lanes of communication. It also plans to replicate CRIMARIO in the southern Pacific.
Advancing economic relations remains at the heart of the Conclusions. It has prioritised promotions of inclusive socio-economic recovery and growth. This is to be achieved through new trade and investment agreements notably with Australia, Indonesia, and New Zealand - and taking steps to conclude Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China and deepening economic relations with India. The EU would also push for stronger collaboration on innovation through joint research and development projects and higher education mobility. Connectivity features as a key component of the Council’s Conclusions. Seen in conjunction with the EU’s 2018 connectivity strategy and EU Parliament’s Draft Report on Connectivity and EU-Asia Relations (2020), the current strategy emphasises advancing sustainable connectivity projects in the region. It focuses on the multi-dimensionality of connectivity and the need for “incentivising private capital and involving EU businesses, where feasible using the EU’s future international cooperation financial instrument”[viii]. Also, learning from the lessons of COVID-19, the emphasis is placed on safeguarding and diversification of pharmaceutical and health-related supply chains along with support for the countries through its Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) to stimulate growth and jobs.
The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy is a welcome step; however, it will take a lot of effort by the EU to achieve its goals. First, apart from France, no other EU country is a resident power in the Indo-Pacific - therefore, the EU would have to make serious efforts and actions to demonstrate its willingness to contribute to the objective it has set out. Second, for effective implementation, it would need to overcome internal divisions on China. The economic dependence on China has led many EU member states to be reluctant to support strong action against China creating divisions within the Union. Although, the EU has been able to overcome some of these divisions due to the diplomatic posture adopted by Beijing during the pandemic, it is difficult to say whether this can be sustained in the long term. Third, while the partner countries in the Indo-Pacific welcome greater European engagement, the EU needs to be pragmatic and proactive towards the region given its late acknowledgement of this geopolitical and geo-economic hotspot. Fourth, in terms of connectivity, the EU would have to compete with the scale of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China. So far, the EU has invested almost €8 billion in connectivity initiatives in Asia in 2014-2020[ix], which remains far below the estimated €1.3 trillion[x] that is needed infrastructure development across the Asia-Pacific region.
On the whole, as the detailed strategy is expected in the latter half of 2021, the Conclusions need to be seen in the context of the EU’s rising global ambitions and as an attempt to increase its footprint the region by cooperating with the like-minded partners in the region with an intention to reinforce its role as “cooperative” partner.
*Dr. Ankita Dutta, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] “EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific - Council Conclusions”, Council of the European Union, 16 April 2021, Brussels
[iv]“Explained- the economic ties between Europe and Asia”, World Economic Forum, 14 May 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/ways-asia-and-europe-together-connected/, Accessed on 4 May 2021
[v]Council Conclusions, n.1
[vi] Council Conclusions, n.1
[viii] Council Conclusions, n.1
[ix] “Explaining the European Union's approach to connecting Europe and Asia”, European Council, 2018, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/MEMO_18_5804, Accessed on 4 May 2021
[x] “Prospects for EU-Asia connectivity - The European way to connectivity”, Briefing, European Parliament, 2021