Article by Leah Koonthamattam and Miruna Sirbu

By September 2021 the European Union ought to have its new strategy ready for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. This strategy will be based on the  conclusions of  the Council of the European Union (Council), approved on April 16. Council conclusions are non-legally binding documents adopted by government ministers of all EU member states, in this case foreign ministers.  In the April 16 conclusions, the 27 member states provide a roadmap for the development of a common EU strategy regarding its involvement in the Indo-Pacific, a region of increasing importance for policy makers. Although the conclusions set the baselines for the document to be developed in September, they already hint at the significant level of European interest for a more coordinated and ambitious role in the Indo-Pacific. 

The conclusions, which focus on economy, diplomacy, and security and defense,  come on the back of already existent strategic partnerships with countries in the region. The document ultimately aims to bring coherence to past regional commitments and reinforce “stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development of the region, based on the promotion of democracy, rule of law, human rights and international law.”

The EU’s interest to maintain a regional order that is “open and rules-based” in the Indo-Pacific is also indicative of its attitudes towards its long time partner, competitor, and rival China. Although the conclusions only mention China once in passing, they already hint to a European consensus on the full spectrum of strategic challenges in the region. Notably, the conclusions mention “the importance of meaningful European naval presence in the Indo-Pacific”, a decision that is eagerly looked on by some, but criticised by others. 

The Paris Globalist spoke with Dr. David Camroux, Senior Lecturer in Asian Studies at Sciences Po, researcher at CERI, and visiting professor at Yonsei University (Seoul), Keio University (Tokyo), and the University of Malaya (Kuala Lumpur). We also spoke to Mr. Luigi Lonardo, lecturer in EU law at University of College Cork and visiting lecturer at PSIA for insights on the EU’s security and defense program. Mr. Jim Townsend, Adjunct Senior Fellow at CNAS and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO Policy joined to offer his perspective from Washington. 

Why does the EU need a strategy for the Indo-Pacific? 

“This EU strategy follows strategies developed firstly in France, then Germany and later the Netherlands”, says Dr. Camroux. It is not an abrupt decision. The member states of the EU have vested interests in the region. He goes on to mention France, whose “interests are unique, linked to the place of its overseas territories in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.” Additionally, post-Brexit, the UK has also made this region a  priority in their own policy paper. The future EU strategy will mostly serve as an umbrella concept creating coherence between past documents. 

Do the Council’s conclusions have the potential of a EU Grand Strategy in the region?

“In recent years, the European External Action Service has spawned dozens of strategic documents. [The] Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is the latest effort and adds to that series. It is probably best read in conjunction with the 2020 joint communication by the Commission and High Representative ‘Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa’ and of course the 2019 EU-China strategy,” says Mr. Lonardo. He claims that the EU’s interests in the Indo-Pacific are mostly indirect, except for the widely perceived threats of disinformation, cybersecurity, and the very significant economic interests. 

Dr. Camroux agrees: “Basically the document affirms merely that the EU as a supra-national entity is a stakeholder”. He doubts that the EU has thought through strategies and tactics to make this document a Grand Strategy, i.e. a political entity’s most complex type of planning towards achieving a long-term objective in international relations theory. 

However, Mr. Townsend highlights that the very achievement of reaching a consensus on a multifaceted document that embraces a defense and security role is already an important accomplishment. It forces EU member states to think strategically about security threats away from their borders and signals to China that the EU has global interests as well. 

What is the significance of the document’s security and defense pillar? Is a more robust naval presence meant to be a game changer in the Indo-Pacific? 

“At the end of the day it’s all about perceptions […] and deterrence is all about that,” says Mr. Townsend. Broadly speaking, a European security and defense role doesn’t need to translate only into a significant naval presence. Mr. Townsend further emphasized the importance of showing the flag. It sends clear messages about EU priorities, even though not all countries will participate militarily. Although naval presence is welcome, there are many other significant ways in which Europeans can contribute to security through financial assistance or sanctions – all of which add value to a coordinated transatlantic effort. 

Mr. Lonardo further talked about the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy in particular. “Maritime threats in the Western Indian Ocean and the critical geopolitical importance of the area, linking the Indo-Pacific to the Mediterranean, made the EU a particularly active player in counterpiracy operations through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP),” he explains. “Granted, the further we go from the EU borders the more difficult it becomes to justify, legally and politically, an EU presence through a CSDP mission to help countering drug or human trafficking.” Moreover, the EU’s coordinated response through a naval presence in case of a humanitarian catastrophe and disasters is likely to be an invaluable asset in the region. 

What do you think are the challenges the EU will face in implementing this?

“Bluntly ‘to put its money (resources) where its mouth is’ or as the Americans say ‘to walk the talk’. Given [its] limited hard (military) power the EU will need to invest considerably more of its market power and normative power resources,” says Dr. Camroux. 

So how does the EU’s defense and security dimension fit within the ongoing work  at NATO to settle on a consensus about China?

We’ll have to wait until the NATO Brussels Summit on June 14, when allies will discuss a wide range of questions including China and the Indo-Pacific. Mr. Townsend says that a new Strategic Concept is likely to be commissioned and this preliminary work on getting European consensus is an important baseline.

One sticking point among EU Member States has been the risk of imperiling relations with China, though China is barely mentioned in the conclusions. Is this a serious concern?

The ‘strategic partner and systemic rival’ discourse on China captures the ambiguity of the EU-China relation. M. Lonardo told TPG that he doesn’t think that either this document, or its security pillar would specifically risk imperiling relations with China. “The multilateral, rule-based trade and investment system so favored by the EU is instead a different story,” he adds.

And though China isn’t directly referred to in the Council’s conclusions, it’s because the document’s purpose isn’t to deliver powerful statements. The language is nuanced and “the Chinese know nuances and would pick up on it,” says Mr. Townsend. 

Additionally, despite the Council’s claims this is not oriented against China, Dr. Camroux believes the strategy has two purposes. First, it clearly signals to southeast Asian partners, like Japan and South Korea, that the EU is a third partner in the region, ready to provide an alternative to the Sino-American rivalry and China’s assertive behavior. Second, it serves to mitigate some of the hostility engendered by the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement (CAI).