The Indo-Pacific concept has been gaining traction in Europe. France has promoted its Indo-Pacific strategy, followed by Germany’s Leitlinien (guidelines), and both eventually led to the launch of a common European Union (EU) Indo-Pacific strategy. While Great Britain does not have an Indo-Pacific strategy as such, London’s Integrated Review included a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific.
The economic relevance of the region for European prosperity is obvious, and with France’s overseas territories, the Indo-Pacific de facto includes EU territory. In terms of security, the case is less clear. Although the region is undoubtably home to some potentially extremely consequential conflicts, to Europe, regional security in Asia is at most a top-four security concern.
European Asia policy is restricted mostly by a combination of vast geographical distance, limited power projection capabilities, unclear objectives, and more urgent priorities. Observers had argued long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Europe’s immediate and indeed existential threats materialize much closer to home. It is Moscow, not Beijing, and the immediate neighborhood, not the far-flung Indo-Pacific, that should be Europe’s main strategic concern. This view is now being reinforced.
A re-prioritization in Europe will now inevitably impact resource allocation to align investment with tangible security threats. In Britain, some have begun to question Indo-Pacific deployments. And while it is true that Europeans are now compelled to both pay attention to geopolitics and invest in their own defense, “trickle-down effects” to the Indo-Pacific will remain minimal. Germany, for example, will now invest 100 billion euros to modernize its military and vowed to henceforth spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, but such European investments will be entirely dedicated to meeting NATO commitments in Europe.
On the EU level, Brussels is now financing lethal weapons for Ukraine – a first in the organization’s history. This is being done via the so-called European Peace Facility (EPF), a funding instrument intended to finance, inter alia, capacity building programs and maritime missions globally. With the application to Ukrainian security, EPF has been entirely drained for now. A similar logic applies to the Global Gateway, through which the EU intends to invest in global infrastructure projects, including in the Indo-Pacific. In the light of the significant funds needed to rebuild post-war Ukraine, which will not be generated in Ukraine but inevitably through foreign aid from the EU and the United States, the war in Ukraine will inevitably put the brakes on European capacities elsewhere. It would be highly unrealistic to expect that the Indo-Pacific agenda, whose financing was already unclear, can be implemented fully.
Nonetheless, the imperative to engage in the Indo-Pacific, especially in economic and sustainable development matters, has not faded, and there are still meaningful opportunities for European contributions to Indo-Pacific stability. These must be limited and targeted.
To begin with, as the United States is pursuing the important objective of maintaining a hard power balance in Asia, the EU and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) should advance an inter-regional/inter-organizational process to work toward maintaining an inclusive, institutionalized multi-stakeholder dialogue. The EU and ASEAN can provide an alternative way to conceive of regional relations beyond binary constraints of China-U.S. competition, as both entities are seen neither as inherently anti- nor pro-China. Instead of contributing to the further polarization of the region, the EU has a pivotal role to play in supporting ASEAN-based multilateral architecture to provide a platform through which regional stakeholders can manage their relationships.
There is also both a need and opportunity for functional cooperation. Alas, by trying to do a bit of everything, Europeans fail to recognize the importance of “playing to your strength.” Functional cooperation should be project-based and target specific non-military cooperation to add nuance to binary Indo-Pacific dynamics. Most importantly, Brussels has significant market and regulatory power as well as expertise in sustainable development of infrastructure. This should be used to both integrate into existing regional frameworks, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and work toward an inter-regional FTA, however daunting a challenge that currently is.
Equally important, many elements of the European Green Deal – a comprehensive strategy toward greenhouse neutrality – is directly applicable to the Indo-Pacific region. The current rapid accumulation of challenges can also be seen as an opportunity to make the global economy fit for the future, a more diversified and a greener future. All adjustments, including agreements on supply chain resilience, energy generation, and other infrastructure investments, should be benchmarked against highest decarbonization and sustainability standards. And with recent experiences in mind, they should create multipolarity in global supply chains and production bases.
Relatedly, the EU should recognize that the lack of focus, vague objectives, and unclear financing set the 2018 EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy up for failure from the outset. Especially in the light of severe funding gaps in post-Ukraine War Europe, Global Gateway should not be seen as a geoeconomic grand strategy, perhaps in competition with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or other regional initiatives. Instead, it should be but seen as complementary, identifying specific needs and devising instruments in order to implement a limited number of concrete sustainable projects that can deliver tangible results for local communities.
Finally, the EU has been rather successful in institutionalized regional pandemic management. And it has shared its success especially with Southeast Asia. In all likelihood, pandemics will reoccur, and thus sharing best practices and developing resilience and readiness is now becoming a central focus of Brussels’ outreach, especially in Southeast Asia.
If strategists in Europe were to listen to ASEAN governments, they would learn of several interesting and meaningful areas in which Europe can contribute, some of which have been itemized above. Although security will always play a role, there is much larger room for an economic and sustainable development agenda. Such a prioritization would create no losers but instead meaningfully complement and provide balance to security mechanisms such as the Quad and AUKUS. A “soft” European focus does not equal shying away from providing security goods. Instead, it contributes to the most crucial geopolitical mission of our time: building a comprehensive security order that includes both China and the United States in order to maintain cooperation and civility, ideally preventing a similar situation to the one currently unfolding in Europe itself.