The rise of China and the economic ascent of Asia, more generally, are redrawing the world’s geopolitical map. The emerging rivalry between China and the United States (US) has begun to transform the Indo-Pacific into a major site of strategic contestation. Despite wide disagreement on the nature, scope and motivations behind the promotion of the Indo-Pacific, the new geographic construct is beginning to gain traction. The Indo-Pacific may or may not substitute the earlier inventions like the Asia-Pacific, but it will capture some key elements of the changing regional geography and shape the regional discourse. The nature of the political, economic and security architecture for the region will continue to animate the US, China, Japan, India and other regional actors. Europe, it has been widely assumed, will have no interest in the Indo-Pacific. That presumption is rooted in two important trends. In post-colonial Asia, there was inevitable diminution of Europe’s historic political weight in the region as the US took up the burden of securing the region. Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has been preoccupied with the reshaping of its own structures of integration and had little time for Asian geopolitics.

The uncertain trajectory of US foreign policy in recent years as well as the rapid rise of China and its expansive Belt and Road Initiative are nudging Europe to pay greater attention. After all, Europe has huge stakes in the economic stability of Asia as well as the sea lines of communication connecting Europe and Asia through the Indo-Pacific. Europe, which had played a decisive role in the construction of trans-regional infrastructure in an earlier era of globalization, can contribute to the new debates on regional connectivity. And as the integration between Europe and Asia accelerates and the threat of US retrenchment from Eurasia looms, Europe will also have to ponder over its security role in the east especially amidst the new Cold War in the region.

C. Raja Mohan
A leading analyst of India’s foreign policy, Mohan is also an expert on South Asian security, great-power relations in Asia, and arms control.
More >

To discuss Europe’s potential role in the emerging turbulence of the Indo-Pacific, the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore organized a symposium on 3 June 2019 in Singapore. Our partners in this enterprise were the European Union (EU) Centre in Singapore; the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI), Stockholm; Swedish South Asian Studies Network (SASNET), Lund University, Lund; Embassy of Sweden, Singapore; and the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Singapore.

Symposium participants included scholars from SASNET; UI; the European Union External Action Service, Brussels; the Polish Institute of International Affairs, Warsaw; Brookings-India and Carnegie-India, New Delhi; the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC; the Perth US-Asia Centre, University of Western Australia, Crawley; the Centre for International Exchange, National Defense Academy of Japan, Yokosuka; the Institute for Strategic and International Studies, London; ISAS; the EU Centre in Singapore; the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University; and ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

John J. Vater
John Joseph Vater is a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS).

The symposium addressed the prospect for a renewed European role in Asia and aimed at generating an Asian appreciation of the possibilities and limitations of the European role on connectivity and security in the Indo-Pacific. The panelists examined emerging European perspectives on the Indo-Pacific, Europe and Indo-Pacific connectivity, the interdependent needs of Europe and the Asian Middle Powers and aligning the EU with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) security forums. The following is the collection of papers presented at the symposium. This introduction is a brief reflection on the issues debated there.

The first paper in the collection reaffirms the vital political, economic and strategic interests the EU has in the Indo-Pacific and explains why the EU has failed to formulate an Indo-Pacific strategy thus far. Patryk Kugiel outlines why the Indo-Pacific has played a marginal role in discussions of EU foreign policy despite the rise of Asia. Among the reasons cited by him are the EU’s limited maritime presence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the continuing lack of conceptual clarity around this regional concept and fears of alienating China through perceptions of containment. Nevertheless, Kugiel emphasizes the EU’s clear need to formulate a firm response to this geopolitical situation, especially given the EU’s preference for a multipolar, multilateral world order, and the obvious connections between European prosperity and Asian security.

One observation that emerged from the discussion following the first session was how the EU’s foreign policy can sometimes appear opaque to outside actors unfamiliar with the EU’s internal workings. This produces uncertainties about whether the EU is actually “one player” or “multiple agendas.” Many agreed that the EU’s principles of international law, open markets and partnerships across and between regions, however, have much in common with the framework and values envisioned for the Indo-Pacific, and thus provide an avenue for the EU to assist in developing the region’s new security architecture.

The EU realizes that hard security is perhaps not its best added value; but other aspects of security and non-traditional security (such as cyber security and migration) as well as connectivity (which may reflect geostrategic as well as sociological and maritime dimensions) are becoming increasingly important. The relationship between geostrategy and connectivity is the issue explored in the next two papers. Jivanta Schottli writes on the EU’s emerging realpolitik vision of connectivity and Dhruva Jaishankar elaborates on how connectivity is fast becoming a primary site of geopolitical struggle.

Both papers highlight how the EU’s foreign policy is taking a more pragmatic turn in its recognition that the EU must combine economic objectives with political goals, and leverage its multilateral financial instruments, standards and knowledge to make a place for itself and its businesses on the world stage. Articulating a global connectivity strategy is a tightrope the EU must walk between the US and China, the latter of which exists pervasively for the EU as partner, competitor and provider. The need for the EU to communicate and develop a consensus about what its vision of connectivity intends for the international order is pivotal, because the EU will be competing with China and Russia as a primary connectivity provider and influencer of global norms.

The Indo-Pacific countries are like the EU in that they prefer a multipolar world in which they do not have to pick sides. The next set of papers identifies the shared interests of the middle powers. Shutaro Sano examines how Japan is deepening and strengthening connectivity with regional and external partners. India, for its part, is eager to escape its confining neighborhood and a defunct South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and seeks new friendships elsewhere. Within this context, Darshana M. Baruah draws attention to the wide scope for collaboration for countries in building a security architecture in the Indo-Pacific at bilateral, trilateral and multilateral levels. She argues that burden sharing is a must, especially when considering the capacity constraints of India, Japan, Australia and France that limit activity to their respective oceanic sub regions.

Gordon Flake, the moderator of the session and Chief Executive Officer of the Perth US-Asia Centre, endorsed the Indo-Pacific as a geographical descriptor for policy making, as it captures the rise of India, Indonesia, Vietnam and ASEAN, and resonates with Australia’s outlook as a two-ocean nation. He offered his vision of the Indo-Pacific as a “wide open field”, whereby expanding the region to outside partners might dilute the relative concentration of Chinese influence, and he welcomed the roles of the United Kingdom and France as Indo-Pacific powers.

The final set of papers examines opportunities for EU collaboration through multilateral forums. They argue that instead of pursuing membership with ASEAN-led regional security forums or attempting to fulfill asymmetrical security guarantees, the EU can enlarge the scope of EU-ASEAN cooperation by focusing on easy-to-achieve reforms and maximizing complimentary capabilities — such as by cooperating around specific security and non-traditional security issues that could transform the region’s strategic dynamic. Malcom Cook warns of “high hanging fruits,” such as seeking a seat at the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), owing to the perceived effect of large memberships on progress and the increased subjection of these regional forums to the China-US strategic rivalry. But he gestures to how Australia has advanced with ASEAN bilaterally, suggesting a path EU member states might also take. Frederic Grare, by comparison, argues that the EU can approach issues like resource appropriation and environmental maritime security as viable paradigms to redefine civil-military relations, and create suitable partnerships emphasizing the linkage between politico-strategic considerations and economic activities. Importantly, he flagged the EU’s need to change the perceptions of other countries towards itself as a “peripheral” player by seizing control of its own security narrative.

The future is always built off the past; one realization amongst the discussants was of the EU’s need to better publicize the range of its accomplishments in Asia, such as in the amount of its foreign investments it has given or the amount it has spent on counterterrorism and combatting violent extremism externally. The perspective of Ambassador David Daly, Head of the Southeast Asia Division of the European External Action Service, at the start of the symposium was illuminating in this respect. He stated that the EU’s policy towards the Asia-Pacific region was based on the principles of openness, partnership, and international rules and standards. These principles are also reflected in the Indo-Pacific approaches of others. He also outlined three main agendas where the EU is actively involved or where negotiations are underway, from which further proactive collaborations might be built.

In security, this includes:

  • Developing tailor-made bilateral security partnerships with India, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Vietnam;
  • Negotiation bilateral framework partnership agreements to facilitate the participation of partner countries in EU security and defense operations (such as those in place with Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea and Japan); and
  • Multilaterally, co-chairing Inter-Sessional Meetings on maritime security with Vietnam and Australia in the ASEAN Regional Forum and by organisin and co-chairing workshops and seminars on other nontraditional security issues such as preventative diplomacy, counter-terrorism, violent extremism and cyber security.

In trade and connectivity, this encompasses:

  • Free trade agreements (FTA) with Singapore and Vietnam, and on-going negotiations with Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, albeit at various speeds, which are important in strengthening the trade relationship with the Southeast Asia region. Indeed, they represent building blocks towards a EU-ASEAN FTA in the future; and
  • Aiming to create transport links, energy and digital networks, more people-to-people connections, and connectivity partnerships with individual Asian countries and organizations through the new EU strategy of “Connecting Europe and Asia.”

In the concluding session, “The Way Forward”, Rani D. Mullen, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at ISAS, argued that the region’s recent historical experience has been that prosperity has come from integration and greater connectivity — this is also the EU story. In a global environment of US and China disrupting the old order, the EU has a positive role to play. Asia and Europe have a common interest in mitigating the risks of a new Cold War and should move away from the binary of a “with us or against us” narrative. Antoine Levesques, Research Fellow at the South Asia Institute for Strategic and International Studies, London, summarized policy proposals discussed, such as the need for the EU to research and understand the facts to develop its own impactful strategic counter-narrative and to focus more on the Indian Ocean as a space for preventative and experimental policymaking. Europe can and should undertake new partnerships (as a union, in clusters of states, or bilaterally), and unveil a more ambitious European vision of connectivity that acknowledges the desire of Asian middle powers to shape the rules of the game.

In terms of deepening trade and security, the shared principles of the EU, ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific form a solid bedrock. For this reason, it is possible to start acting on issue-bound collaborations, which Baruah suggests, do not have to wait for narratives on the Indo-Pacific to align. Choices of which projects to engage in will require an assessment of best instruments and added values, including what EU member states can contribute, inevitably reflecting their capabilities and geopolitical positioning.

We still exist in a world of multilateral institutions, but this does not mean engagement requires formal participation or structural alignment. There are practical paths for progress. For instance, the EU should avoid dynamics that constrain how policy members think. The EU can operationalise the sectors it cares most about and move away from large, institutionalised forums to looser, legally non-binding groupings. Opportunities for cooperation with one another are vast, for example in space and regional navigation systems, blue economy, cyber terrorism and unregulated fishing. What is needed first and foremost is action, and more forward thinking around ideas like those heard at the symposium.

Europe will indeed be compelled to debate its options in an increasingly turbulent and uncertain world. The weakening of US alliance commitments and Washington’s insistence on “burden sharing” certainly generate a sense of existential crises among the European states that had failed to invest in sufficient defense capabilities. But a US retrenchment also means the EU will be able to exercise greater independence in the future. It is not a foregone conclusion that Europe will always side with the US on all regional issues in Asia, including those involving China. Asia needs a robust European role to contribute to connectivity and security in the Indo-Pacific. Asia should also value the special virtues that Europe brings to the table — democratic values, norm-development and the capacity to temper nationalism with multilateralism.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific has played a marginal role in discussions on the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy among European politicians, policy analysts and academicians alike. This has not changed much even after the main EU partners — the United States (US), Japan, Australia and India — had prioritised the Indo-Pacific in their international strategies over the last few years. Yet, the EU’s vital interests in the region and high stakes in the rules-based international order in times of global shifts call for a more clear-cut position from the European Union. Can the EU be an influential actor in this geopolitical arena? What interests and concerns will drive European approaches to the region? This paper reviews the EU’s regional approach — including limitations and opportunities — and suggests the role that the EU can play in the Indo-Pacific.

This paper was originally published as a special report by the National University of Singapore's Institute of South Asian Studies.