The European Union has shown its keenness to play an active role in the Indo-Pacific with a draft policy document of its strategy on the Indo-Pacific published on April 19 and the final communiqué will be released in September. The document states that the EU has a big stake in the regional architecture of the Indo-Pacific because it is “home to 60% of the world’s population producing 60% of global GDP, and contributing two-thirds of current global growth”. The EU expects the regional architecture remains open and rules-based, however, it believes that “current dynamics in the Indo-Pacific have given rise to intense geopolitical competition”. In this regard, it seeks to “reinforce its strategic focus, presence and actions in the Indo-Pacific with the aim of contributing to the stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development of the region, based on the promotion of democracy, rule of law, human rights and international law”.
The document does not specifically mention who are the main actors and competitors, and mentions China only once—about the EU’s prospective Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China. This suggests that the EU doesn’t view China as a rival or a competitor but as a constructive partner. However, it is apprehensive of the latest developments that are taking place in the Indo-Pacific region which are largely affecting the smooth functioning of the principle of ‘freedom of navigation’ due to China’s actions. In September 2020, Germany, France and the UK jointly submitted a proposal to the UN rejecting Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea under international law.
Compared with the Quad formation, China’s respond towards EU’s document is somewhat positive, not opposed or condemned the new policy initiative, rather a steady silence on it. This means that Beijing welcomes EU’s active participation in the Indo-Pacific which it believes could replace the Quad, formed by US and a bunch of ‘China-hawks’ which include Japan, Australia and India. Quad is a quadrilateral security mechanism created by Japan, India, Australia and the US, supposedly aimed to counter Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific. On the other hand, EU is a stabilising organisation in Europe and China strengthens its relationship with the EU economically, and now with EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy it will have a security dynamics too.
Prior to this, France, Germany and the Netherlands had come up with their own Indo-Pacific strategies. They are engaging with the regional countries, mostly with US’ strategic partners. Recently Germany and Japan have held the first-ever security dialogue between their foreign and defence ministers, also known as “two plus two”, and has planned to dispatch a German frigate to the Indo-Pacific in 2021, which was scheduled to travel in 2020, but was postponed due to Convid-19 restrictions, and the ship will pass the South China Sea, for the first time after 2002 when a German naval ship crossed the SCS. France joined the Quad members and conducted a joint naval exercise codenamed “La Pérouse,” on April 5-6 in the Bay of Bengal.
A major reason for the EU’s renewed push for an active role in the Indo-Pacific is to replicate the model of European stability into the Indo-Pacific. European stability during the Cold War was based on balance of power and followed a strategy of ‘rivalry and containment’ with the former Soviet Union. However, its new incarnation Russia is being treated differently and the EU’s strategy towards Moscow is more of ‘engagement and containment’.. It has contributed to stability in Europe as no one power will dominate the continent, while at the same time benefit economically from the engagements.
Today, China has become the largest trading partner of the EU, overtaking the US in 2020, and many of the EU countries have joined the China-led multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the same time, the EU has expressed its concern of freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific and, being a member of NATO, it supports the US policy on security of the region. The stability of the region is important for the EU both in terms of economy as well as security. Its strategy towards the Indo-Pacific is engagement and containment-engaging China economically, while containing its hegemonic ambition in the maritime domain of Asia.
Indeed, power balancing is the most effective and sustainable mechanism to bring peace and prosperity to any region. However, Indo-Pacific lacks this power balancing and is still a theater for potential disruption because of China’s assertiveness and perceived hegemonic ambition. There has been no regional mechanism which can effectively manage regional security in the Indo-Pacific. The US announced a ‘rebalancing’ strategy a decade back to contain China, but its implementation turned out to be ineffective, and China has become more assertive since then. The Quad is still in its formative period of evolution and is highly unlikely to become a vibrant regional mechanism in near future. The only mechanism that has wider acceptance across the region is ASEAN, with its policy of multilateralism premised on ‘inclusiveness and consensus’. It has been accepted by all stakeholders, including China and the US. For instance, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2017, which was further highlighted by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar at a UN Security Council virtual meeting on April 19, 2021, that ‘India’s vision of Indo-Pacific is the centrality of ASEAN’. However, most of the regional countries are economically dependent on China so are unable to pursue balancing against Beijing. Even though India is the largest regional military power after China and the least exposed economically to China, it is reluctant to take a leadership role of the Quad, or to play a constructive role in a balancing mechanism against China.
In fact, the countries which oppose China’s assertiveness in the maritime domain had expected that New Delhi would take more of a leadership role in a regional balancing mechanism against China. When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 he changed India’s ‘look-east’ policy into ‘act-east’- an active partnership with the regional countries to enhance India’s profile in the region and contribute more in regional security matters. But India still follows the ASEAN’s inclusiveness, and lacks the will to confront China. When the Galwan fiasco happened last year, instead of building a diplomatic offensive against Beijing at the global level and named it as an aggressor, Prime Minister Modi followed a non-confrontationist approach towards China. Similarly, PM Modi announced Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) in 2015 as a counter initiative against China’s Belt and Road Initiate to enhance India’s economic, social and cultural cooperation with the countries from western and northern Indian Ocean region. However, without a strategic direction and sound policy backup, the initiative is still a nonstarter.
It is in this respect that the EU’s new effort can be seen as a stabilizer and to fill the vacuum of the balance of power mechanism in the Indo-Pacific. Also, EUs new strategy would be welcomed by the regional countries because its strategy is to assist capacity building of the regional countries, not to pursue a bipolar approach vis-à-vis China. In this regard, if India continues its reluctance to take a leadership role in the Quad, and cooperate with EU and other regional countries, then New Delhi will gradually become a bystander in the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific, which will be determined by China on the one hand and US and EU on the other.