EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
Cooperation or Confrontation?
The world’s economic and political center of gravity has been shifting towards the Indo-Pacific for years. With China playing an increasingly dominant role in everything from trade to military power and technology, the relative decline of American supremacy is palpable. The European Union (EU) is stepping up its strategic engagement with the vital Indo-Pacific region. The region’s growing economic, demographic and political weight makes it a key player in shaping the rules-based international order and in addressing global challenges. It is in this context that the bloc has issued its own “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” with which the EU seems set to push for a closer relationship and stronger presence in this important region.
What the Plan Entails?
“With today’s proposals, and guided by our values, we are offering a strengthened partnership to advance trade, investment and connectivity, while addressing common global challenges and reinforcing the rules-based international order.” —Ursula von der Leyen (European Commission President)
The EU plan includes “exploring ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States to help protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation,” a statement said. Other areas the plan intends to address include building cooperation with countries in the region on trade, health, data, infrastructure, and the environment.
The new strategy could also beef up the EU’s diplomatic profile on issues important to the region, and increase the military presence of EU countries in the Indo-Pacific. This could also involve deploying EU personnel and security presence to assist on international missions, including sailing EU-flagged ships on patrols in the South China Sea.
“Our strategy is inclusive, it is open to all our partners in the region. We wish to cooperate from East Africa to the Pacific, and this includes China in many areas, such as climate and biodiversity. China’s cooperation is essential, our strategy is one of cooperation, but not confrontation.” — Josep Borrell (European Commission’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs
The EU’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific region will be principled and long-term. It says the aim of the strategy is to strengthen and expand economic relations while reinforcing the respect of international trade rules, help partners fight and adapt to climate change and biodiversity loss, and boost cooperation on health care so least-developed countries can better prepare for crises like the coronavirus pandemic.
The strategy will seek to:
a. Solidify and defend the rules-based international order, by promoting inclusive and effective multilateral cooperation based on shared values and principles, including a commitment to respecting democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
b. Promote a level playing field and an open and fair environment for trade and investment.
c. Contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to addressing climate change and environmental degradation on land and in the ocean, and to supporting sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development.
d. Engage in bilateral and multilateral cooperation with partners to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
e. Pursue its long-standing multilateral and regional cooperation with the United Nations and Bretton Woods Institutions, as well as regional organisations such as ASEAN and the African Union in the Western Indian Ocean.
f. Support truly inclusive policy-making and cooperation, where the voices of civil society, the private sector, social partners and other key stakeholders count.
g. Establish mutually supportive trade and economic relations with the region that foster inclusive economic growth and stability, and promote and facilitate connectivity.
h. Engage in the region as a partner in EU’s efforts to raise awareness on the impact of global demographic trends.
As stated in the document, the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific will allow the EU to enhance cooperation in the following priority areas:
1. Sustainable and Inclusive Prosperity
a. Work with Indo-Pacific partners to reinforce value chains, strengthen and diversify trade relations, implement existing trade agreements, finalise ongoing trade negotiations and develop cooperation in strategic sectors.
b. Strengthen rules to protect international trade against unfair practices, such as industrial subsidies, economic coercion, forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft.
2. Green Transition
a. Work with partners to fight, mitigate and adapt to climate change and to counter biodiversity loss, pollution and other forms of environmental degradation.
3. Ocean Governance
a. Strengthen ocean governance in the region in full compliance with international law, in particular UNCLOS.
b. Continue to support partners in the region to fight against IUU fishing and to implement Sustainable Fisheries Partnership Agreements.
4. Digital Governance and Partnerships
a. Expand the network of digital partnerships with Indo-Pacific partners, and explore potential new Digital Partnership Agreements.
b. Strengthen cooperation on research and innovation with like-minded regional partners under the ‘Horizon Europe’ programme.
a. Promote all dimensions of connectivity with Indo-Pacific partners.
b. Support partners to establish a good regulatory environment and facilitate funding to improve connectivity on the ground between Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
6. Security and Defence
a. Promote an open and rules-based regional security architecture, including secure sea lines of communication, capacity-building and enhanced naval presence in the Indo-Pacific.
b. Explore ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments by EU Member States in the region.
c. Support Indo-Pacific partners’ capacity to ensure maritime security.
d. Facilitate capacity-building for partners to tackle cybercrime.
7. Human Security
a. Support healthcare systems and pandemic preparedness for the least-developed countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
b. Reinforce the EU’s disaster risk reduction and preparedness engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
The China Factor
The EU is already the top investor, leading development cooperation partner and one of the biggest traders in the Indo-Pacific. But it wants to step up its involvement given the rise in regional geopolitical tensions which are hurting trade and supply chains and undermining security.
The 27-nation bloc’s relations with China are currently at a low point, but the EU insists that the move is not aimed at countering Beijing’s influence, even though the strategy does foresee the deepening of trade and investment ties with Taiwan.
“On many areas such as climate and biodiversity, China’s cooperation is essential. Our strategy is one of cooperation, not confrontation. I think it’s important to stress this sentence: our strategy is built on the will to cooperate, not to confront it,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters.
While the intricacies of the EU’s new strategy paper are still being digested by analysts, what’s clear is that the EU hasn’t diverted from its usual path in the Indo-Pacific.
The strategy opens by stating that the EU should reinforce its focus and presence in the Indo-Pacific because of its increasing importance. It continues by saying that the EU wants to reinforce its partnerships in the region on fronts such as climate change and humanitarian assistance. The Council deliberately made the strategy flexible and adaptable to the different powers in the region. In this way, cooperation can be achieved with players with either shared interests or shared values. The EU’s strategy has the following key goals: to support partners in the region, promote the international community’s global agenda, advance its own economic agenda, play a part in the security and defence of the Indo-Pacific, ensure high-quality connectivity, and promote collaboration in the fields of research, innovation and digitalisation.
It is hardly surprising that the EU will release such a strategy document, given that more than 35 percent of all European exports go to this region, making the bloc the largest trading partner for several Indo-Pacific economies. It is worth noting that there is no direct mention of China or any “finger-pointing” in the strategy and while the EU recognises the challenges that the CCP poses, it is leaving the door open for cooperation. However, it is also worth noting that the use of terms such as Indo-Pacific or “rules-based order” are not neutral, and to some, these concepts have become shorthand for anti-China. By using them, despite its efforts, the EU is generating tension and positioning itself towards the “like-minded”.
The main criticism towards the strategy is that it is a “paper tiger”. In other words, in practical terms, it is soft on China and ambivalent on too many issues. However, this can also be seen as its strength, as with so many different member states’ national interests to juggle, this ambivalence allows the EU to be flexible in its approach, especially on soft issues.
The Writer is a Member of Staff