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There will be no wealth for Europe, if there is no stability in the Indo-Pacific.
-Peter Rimmele, Resident Representative to India, KAS
Indo-Pacific on the European agenda. Despite geographical separation from the Indo-Pacific, France, Germany and Netherlands have all announced Indo-Pacific strategies, and the urgency for an EU strategy is apparent from it having been put on the EU Council’s agenda earlier this year. The EU outlook for Indo-Pacific will be made public sometime next year and will focus on inclusivity and a non-confrontational, broad regional strategy, not just security. Europe has looked at the region through the prism of China, and will now look through the prism of Asia.
The U.K.’s formal Indo-Pacific strategy, An Indo-Pacific Tilt, will also be released soon, in line with the Integrated Operating Concept 2025 published in September 2020. The U.K.’s Indo-Pacific outlook will rest on three pillars: (a) Prosperity; (b) Security and (c) Shared Values – a theme that resonates with India’s regional outlook of Security and Growth for all in Region (SAGAR) and seven pillars of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative.
Individual European nations will have differing priorities while engaging with the Indo-Pacific as a whole and bilaterally. All, however, are major trading partners with the region, and unified under a common strategy for reformed multilateralism which includes collaboration on security, Commonwealth, rule-based order, technology and connectivity.
Security: France and the U.K., with their extensive territories and military might, can expend resources on the security concerns of the area. The U.K. has already announced plans to dispatch its carrier strike group early next year. The U.K.’s imminent finalisation of the Logistics Sharing Agreement with India will further enhance its maritime connect with the Indo-Pacific, and especially India, the key strategic partner. France is already active in the region and will participate in a trilateral exercise with Japan and the U.S. in May 2021, and perhaps an India-France-Australia trilateral as well. Russia, with its borders contiguous with Europe, will continue to be the prominent geographic threat for Europe, but with China moving from a ‘systemic rival’ to a ‘strategic competitor’ France and other European military powers signing on to the Indo-Pacific security construct will provide more military bite in the region
Commonwealth collaboration: Traditionally the Commonwealth was an institutionalised diplomatic manoeuvre, now it is extended to economic engagement, but still lacks a security architecture. India and the U.K. can work together for a security dialogue with Commonwealth nations, building on their individual visions for the Indo-Pacific.
Human Rights, Shared Values and Rule-based Order. Chinese assertiveness has amplified exponentially during the ongoing pandemic, across all domains of international relations – military, diplomacy, trade, human rights and the rule-based order. Europe seeks reciprocity from China, beyond cooperation whilst protecting its values. Germany has been at the forefront of calling China out, be it the joint note presented at the UN on the South China Sea or point out human rights abuses. These have had little to no impact on China. Germany may lack military strength and political will to engage militarily in the Indo-Pacific, but can champion a rule-based order under the emerging multilateral alignments.
Technology. Indo-Pacific security is both maritime and digital, and both commons are under attack in the region. Leading industrialised European nations like Germany, France, U.K. and Netherlands can counter it by driving technology co-operation under groupings like D10 (Democracy 10), GPAI (Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence) and even perhaps a T10 (Technology 10) which can set digital standards and digital norms.
Connectivity: The EU does not yet have a formal position on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the Maritime Silk Route, but wants to offer those countries an alternative especially in norms and standards. The EU is looking at connectivity in energy, transport, infrastructure, people-to-people; as the largest donor of development aid, the EU can use its soft power diplomacy, to balance the regional security architecture.
Need for Institutionalised Frameworks. China has put its communist ideology on an accelerated time-table, while democracies struggle with consensus-building. There is no NATO or EU equivalent in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN lacks military strength and the Quad lacks an institutional framework. To match Chinese assertiveness, Europe must engage on an expedited timeline through the Quad, the Five Powers’ Defence Agreement (FDPA), Commonwealth and other multilateral forums to build institutionalised frameworks, to “put paper into practice” for a truly free, open, inclusive and rule-based Indo-Pacific.