The European Union is seeking to increase its political, economic and military presence in the so-called Indo-Pacific, a mega-region stretching from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Islands.
The reason is simple: economic allure and geopolitical risks. The region accounts for 60 per cent of global GDP and contributes about two-thirds of global economic growth.
In addition, as the EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific states, the region is characterised by “intense geopolitical competition”; current regional dynamics testify to growing tensions in trade and supply chains, as well as in the technological, political and security spheres.
Although Europe’s contribution to regional security is growing cautiously and gradually, trade and investment remain at the heart of the EU’s external action.
Although Europe’s contribution to regional security is growing cautiously and gradually, trade and investment remain at the heart of the EU’s external action
Domestically, the EU is promoting industrial policies and regulations to level the playing field with China, but it is undeniable that competition for new technologies, which are likely to have a decisive impact on future security and economic competitiveness, is also taking place among EU Member States and global allies.
Aside from its traditional trade liberalisation agenda, the EU is promoting public-private investments to increase “connectivity”. Through the EU’s Global Gateway and third-party coordination, connectivity investments may thus kill three birds with one stone: assist developing countries in the Indo-Pacific; reap economic benefits for the EU; and provide financial, and thus political alternatives to developing Indo-Pacific countries.
Developing Asia’s infrastructure to respond to climate change and maintain its growth momentum will reportedly require about €1.58bn in investments per year. Rather than invest in hard infrastructure, the EU and its Member States may well leverage their industrial strengths, thus favouring digital and green connectivity and their industrial champions. This is a mercantile game that many East Asian players have long played.
The EU’s Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, along with the 2022 EU Strategic Compass, suggests an expansion of European security engagement in the region. To date, this has mainly consisted of monitoring United Nations sanctions against North Korea and more recently supporting the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait.
Military cooperation with regional partners has increased too, including collaboration in new fields such as cybersecurity and disinformation, as evidenced by the Enhancing Security Cooperation in and with Asia (ESIWA) EU Project.
To be sure, there’s greater transatlantic convergence considering Russia’s war in Ukraine. Thus, 2023 will likely witness a growing presence of Nato member states’ military assets in the region to send a message of political unity.
Still, the EU and its Member States’ emphasis on upholding the international rule of law and avoiding provocative behaviour aims at reassuring local Indo-Pacific players and to project their posture as distinct from Washington’s maximalist pushback.
This is evidenced by the emphasis on inclusivity and multilateralism in the EU’s Strategy for Cooperation; the bloc wants to reassure local actors that, yes, the aim is to resist Chinese aggression, but also avoid provoking it.
Occupying such a space allows European actors to sell more of their tools and defence systems, an indication of the commercial and mercantile goals behind security engagement. When taken together with the aforementioned competing interests, this approach may hamper joint EU foreign and security policy in the future.