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International Relations

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The Indo-Pacific region has acquired striking salience with the U.S.-China strategic contestation becoming sharper than before. Speedy development of the Quad comprising Australia, Japan, India and the U.S.; the emergence of AUKUS comprising Australia, the U.K. and the U.S.; and other alignments raise the question: where does Europe stand in relation to this churning?

Europe’s Asia connect is old, strong and multi-layered. Asia is viewed and evaluated through national and regional perspectives. This explains why at least since 2018, countries such as France, the Netherlands, Germany and the U.K. announced their specific policies towards the Indo-Pacific. The European Union (EU) is in the process of coping with the rise of China and other Asian economies, the tensions due to China’s aggressiveness along its periphery, and economic consolidation through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. In this backdrop, the announcement by the Council of the European Union of its initial policy conclusions in April, followed by the unveiling of the EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific on September 16, are notable.

Seen from Brussels, the EU and the Indo-Pacific are “natural partner regions”. The EU is already a significant player in the Indian Ocean littoral states, the ASEAN area and the Pacific Island states, but the strategy aims to enhance the EU’s engagement across a wide spectrum. Future progress will be moulded by principles ranging from the imperative to defend the “rules-based international order”; promote a level-playing field for trade and investment, Sustainable Development Goals and multilateral cooperation; support “truly inclusive policy-making” encompassing the civil society and the private sector; and protect human rights and democracy.

The policy document also says cooperation will be strengthened in sustainable and inclusive prosperity, green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnerships, connectivity, security and defence, and human security. The EU thus promises to focus on the security and development dimensions of its relationship with the region.

But the EU’s security and defence capabilities are quite limited, as compared to the U.S. and China. To obviate an imbalance in favour of economic links, EU will need to give adequate space and support to France which has sizeable assets and linkages with the Indo-Pacific. It also must forge strategic coordination with the U.K. as the latter prepares to expand its role in Asia as part of its ‘Global Britain’ strategy.

As a major economic power, the EU has an excellent chance of success in its trade negotiations with Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand; in concluding discussions for an economic partnership agreement with the East African Community; and in forging fisheries agreements and green alliances with interested partners to fight climate change. To achieve all this and more, EU must increase its readiness to share its financial resources and new technologies with partners.

The EU suffers from marked internal divisions. Many states view China as a great economic opportunity, but others are acutely conscious of the full contours of the China challenge. They believe that neither China’s dominance in Asia nor bipolarity leading to a new Cold War will serve Europe’s interests.

The risks facing the EU are varied. Russia next door is the more traditional threat. It is increasingly on China’s side. Hence, the EU should find it easy to cooperate with the Quad. However, AUKUS muddied the waters, especially for France. Yet, endeavours by a part of the western alliance to bolster naval and technological facilities to deal with China cannot be unwelcome. What the EU needs is an internally coordinated approach.

India has reasons to be pleased with the EU’s policy. India’s pivotal position in the region necessitates a closer India-EU partnership. The India-EU Leaders’ Meeting on May 8, followed by the External Affairs Minister’s Gymnich meeting in Slovenia with the EU foreign ministers on September 3, were designed to “foster new synergies”. Early conclusion of an ambitious and comprehensive trade agreement and a standalone investment protection agreement will be major steps. Cooperation in Industry 4.0 technologies is desirable. Consolidating and upgrading defence ties with France, Germany and the U.K. should also remain a significant priority.

The EU can create a vantage position for itself in the Indo-Pacific by being more candid with itself, more assertive with China, and more cooperative with India.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former Ambassador

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