The “Integrated Review of Security, Development Defense and Foreign Policy,” released last week, underscores the U.K. government’s commitment to “Global Britain.” High on its list of priorities is the Indo-Pacific region: The review pledges that London will be “deeply engaged” with the region, which is emerging as the global “geopolitical and economic center of gravity.”
It’s a common sentiment. National governments and the European Union itself have recognized the need for more systematic and strategic engagement with Indo-Pacific partners. While encouraging, hopes should be tempered. Europe is a long way away, and history, distance and the EU’s priorities will limit those governments’ attempts to shape regional developments. Europe can add ballast to Asian affairs, but it is unlikely to actively influence them.
Britain’s Integrated Review has been called “a tilt to the Indo-Pacific,” a region that is “the crucible for many of the most pressing global challenges.” Central to that characterization is China, which London calls “a systemic challenge … to our security, prosperity and values — and those of our allies and partners.” That assessment is shared by the European Union, which labeled China a “systemic rival” in its 2019 strategy. The EU is still struggling to implement a strategy that backs engagement when possible and competition when required. The U.K. will face similar difficulties when it attempts to operationalize the Integrated Review.
France, Germany and the Netherlands have already written their own Indo-Pacific strategies. France, a “resident power” with “Overseas France” islands and over 1.8 million citizens in the region, was first. But even with that substantive national interest, Paris recognizes its limited ability to influence regional outcomes. As one Australian diplomat explained to the Nikkei, “France has no illusions of being a great power of the 19th century, but sees itself as a balancing power that counts.” Other European governments share that mindset.
Those regional strategies back principles — rule of law and freedom of navigation — and endorse cooperation with like-minded countries. The EU is developing an Indo-Pacific strategy and it will most certainly reach the same conclusions. Central to each effort is broad-based engagement so that any Indo-Pacific strategy is more than just a China policy with perfunctory nods to other regional governments. As EU foreign policy head Josep Borrell explained, “Asia is big and diverse and should not be reduced to looking only at China.”
There is a solid foundation to build upon. Bilateral trade between the EU and Indo-Pacific partners — Japan, China, South Korea, India and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — exceeds $700 billion. The region is the second largest destination for EU exports and is home to four of the top 10 EU trading partners. EU foreign direct investment stock in the ASEAN states reached €337 billion in 2017, more than any other investor, and EU countries have invested more than €140 billion in China over the past two decades.
The steady expansion of trade ties has prompted Brussels to formalize economic relationships in a series of agreements. Japan and the EU concluded an Economic Partnership Agreement, the largest in the world, in 2019; a Comprehensive Investment Agreement with China was wrapped up at the end of 2020, and there are free trade agreements with South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. Negotiations are proceeding for deals with Australia and New Zealand, and the EU and ASEAN last December upgraded their relationship to a Strategic Partnership.
With some 10% of British, French and German trade transiting the South China Sea, Europe has a stake in regional stability. That, along with a broader commitment to rule of law, has prompted the deployment of European military assets to the region. France dispatched an aircraft carrier in 2019, and a nuclear submarine and a warship to the South China Sea earlier this year. They complement the 5,000 troops and ships that look after France’s three “permanent areas of responsibility” in the South Pacific: New Caledonia, Reunion and French Polynesia.
German officers serve on Australian ships during Indian Ocean patrols and Berlin has said that it will send a frigate to Japan this summer. Britain has joined joint exercises with U.S forces in the South China Sea since 2019 and has said that it will send an aircraft carrier to the region in the next few months. The U.K. is also part of the Five Powers Defense Arrangements with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore.
The EU and ASEAN agreed in May 2018 to expand security cooperation and there are six European countries among Southeast Asia’s top 10 arms suppliers. In truth, though, European powers have little capacity for power projection. Those deployments are mostly symbolic and underline a commitment to international law.
They are also another signal of Europe’s desire for “strategic autonomy,” a concept that remains blurry but officially means the “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible.” It is the product of concern about U.S reliability and a readiness, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for Europe to “take its destiny into its own hands.”
Readers might expect some Indo-Pacific nations to be ambivalent about if not opposed to European ambitions. China is in the latter camp, convinced that Indo-Pacific engagement ultimately seeks to check its rise. When Germany produced its Indo-Pacific guidelines, China’s Xinhua news agency dismissed them as “a U.S.-Germany convergence” and warned that “China-Europe relations may never be the same.”
Meanwhile, governments in India and Southeast Asia, whose colonial experiences are still part of living memory, are more welcoming (although they can be prickly when pushed). They seek more involvement from outside powers, since that provides balance and leverage in diplomatic negotiations. In the annual survey of regional opinion by Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, the EU this year topped Japan as the most preferred and trusted strategic “third party” to hedge against U.S.-China competition. Fifty-1% of respondents consider the EU “a reliable champion on issues such as the rule of law, global governance, free trade, sustainability and climate change.”
Good intentions and regional receptivity aren’t enough, however. Not only are the distances vast, but Europe has more pressing security challenges closer to home: instability in northern Africa and the Middle East, along with Russian encroachment on the European periphery. Those contingencies demand attention and priority in the calculations of security policymakers and planners throughout the continent.
And even if the EU could articulate and agree on an activist policy for hard security problems in the Indo-Pacific, it must in times of crisis muster the will to act, a challenge among 27 states, several of which are increasingly sympathetic to Chinese concerns.
While actions such as freedom of navigation operations support international law and should be continued, limited defense resources are better employed to build up capabilities in Europe to free U.S. assets for use in the Indo-Pacific.
There is one more difficulty. Europe’s authority and legitimacy rest largely on its soft power: Unable to coerce, it must persuade. Support for values, norms and principles are the primary means for doing so. The EU has used connectivity initiatives with ASEAN to help support the articulation and development of norms and standards, protect human rights and promote cybersecurity.
“Principles” are tricky. European governments insist that they are not taking sides in the U.S.-China competition but instead are backing neutral principles. It’s the right claim, but it carries little weight with Beijing — ask Berlin. Nor is it clear how far Asian governments are prepared to go in support of norms and values either. Their priorities tend to be traditional security and economic development. Europe is right to be engaged — Japan should encourage its participation in the Indo-Pacific — but expectations must be tempered.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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