Pacific island states are crucial for the EU’s maritime security

If a full-on conflict between the US and China breaks out in the Indo-Pacific region, the EU will be unable to remain on the sidelines
A US Navy fighter jet prepares to launch from a flight deck as a Japanese helicopter destroyer sails alongside, in the South China Sea | Photo: Alamy

By Alessandro de Cicco

Geopolitical analyst and a researcher in the field of EU foreign and security policy

03 Aug 2023

Europe’s maritime security is inextricably tied to the security of a region located 12,000km away – the Pacific island states. Made up of hundreds of islands which host small and sparsely populated countries and have limited natural resources at their disposal, this region could determine the fate of the European Union and its citizens. 

That’s because of the sphere of influence held by some Pacific islands to determine whether China, a major systemic rival of the EU, will be able to settle its fleet in the Pacific Ocean. Such a scenario could trigger drastic consequences as it would threaten the foundation of the United States’ security, as the western superpower maintains a large naval and air force presence in the Pacific. 

The EU holds vital economic interests at sea, ranging from trade to oil and gas supplies, so if a full-on conflict between the US and China should break out in the Indo-Pacific, EU countries will be unable to remain on the sidelines. Instead, they are likely to be asked to provide military assistance to help the US contain China’s strategic ambitions.  

For the EU, and especially the 22 Member States that are also Nato allies, there will be no alternative but to come to Washington’s aid. The US – Nato’s number-one contributor and the world’s most powerful military force – has, after all, guaranteed the security of Europe for nearly 80 years.  

But Beijing has intensified its diplomatic ties with – as well as its financial aid and loans to – several island states, which have often resulted in debt vulnerability for the recipient countries. 

In April of last year, for instance, Beijing concluded a security pact with the Solomon Islands, one that would allow China to send armed forces to the area in certain situations.  

Closer diplomatic, financial and military ties may persuade a Pacific island state to let China one day build a permanent base on its territory. The possibility of having Chinese forces stationed off the coast of Australia concerns the US as well as its like-minded partners. Washington has understood this risk and signed a defence and maritime co-operation agreement with Papua New Guinea in May.  

India, a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (a group which also includes Australia, Japan and the US) has unveiled a 12-point plan to strengthen ties with the Pacific nations. Japan has opened embassies in Vanuatu (in 2018) and Kiribati (in 2023), and a consulate in French-controlled New Caledonia (in 2023). And in May, the Australian government committed a $1.9bn package for security in the Pacific as part of its 2023-2024 budget.  It's now time for the EU to also take action.