The European Council approved conclusions on the European Union (EU) Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific on April 16, 2021. The bloc laid out its intentions 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.” This strategy was launched before the virtual EU-India Summit that was held on May 8, 2021.
The strategy of the EU has opened new doors for India to play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific, the strategy mentioned that “EU will continue to explore deepening economic relations with India”. Henceforth, India will have a relevant role in strengthening the Indo-Pacific strategy of the EU. After the release of the Indo-Pacific strategy by the EU, a virtual India-EU summit was organized. For the first India-EU summit to be held in the 27+1 format—the only other country to have held talks with the EU in this format is the U.S.
India well understands the uncertainty embedded in the U.S. and China rivalry and needs partners to support its economic growth and security developments. Both the EU and India consider each other as their natural partners in the Indo-Pacific. The Summit reinforced the EU-India strategic partnership, that is based on shared values of democracy, adherence to rule of law and respect for human rights.
The policy adopted by the EU is relevant as it is followed by the launch of the Indo-Pacific Strategies of European countries like France, Germany and the Netherlands. Currently, the EU is trying to maintain a balanced approach in dealing with China but the relations between them are deteriorating. The EU and China relations exacerbated when in March 2021, the EU imposed sanction against China for its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim living in the Xinjiang province of China. To counter the sanctions of the EU, China as well imposed sanctions against the EU. After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the sanctions imposed by the EU are the first human rights sanctions against China. Last year in December 2020, the EU-China Comprehensive Investment Aid was signed. But for the agreement has not come into force as it has to be ratified by the EU members and the European Parliament. But, due to the sanctions in place, the agreement is under enormous opposition from the EU members making the conditions unfavorable for ratification. Presently, the EU is trying to come up with a balanced approach towards China, therefore, avoided pointing a figure at China in its strategy. But then again the rising Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific has alarmed the bloc. Therefore, the changing role of China in the region and the world has laid the groundwork for the EU to revise its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Major highlights of the Indo-Pacific strategy was that it based on a long-term perspective. It aims to provide the EU larger engagement in the region and enhance its capacity as a global actor in the region starting from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island States. The EU believes that the political dynamics of the Indo-Pacific region has stepped up the geopolitical competition and increased concerns on trade and supply chains along with technological, political and security areas. The violations of human rights in the region threaten the security and stability of the region that directly impacts the interests of the EU. Indo-Pacific is crucial for the EU as it holds 60% of the world population and produces 60% of global GDP, contributing two-thirds of current global growth. The region comprises major trade routes and dominates the world trade and political dynamics.
The EU wants to work with all partners in the areas of common interests such as addressing the human and economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis, guaranteeing a sustainable and inclusive green socio-economic recovery and establishing a resilient health system. The focal point of the EU Indo-Pacific strategy is to engage with partners that have announced their Indo-Pacific approaches. The EU is committed to the region and wishes to cooperate with everyone ready to engage with the bloc. The strategy is designed to be rational, adaptable and multi-faceted, to give EU the opportunity to shape its cooperation conferring to specific policy areas where common ground based on mutual principles, values and interest with the partners can be established. The renewed strategy allows the EU to enhance cooperation in areas such as ocean governance, health, research and technology, security and defence, connectivity, and climate change.
In coordination with the EU strategy, the joint statement after the India-EU summit stated that both the partners will cooperate with each other in areas such as connectivity, climate change, health sector, human rights, digital transformation and foreign and security affairs. It was agreed in the summit that EU and India will commit to cooperate to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Both the partners consented to strengthen EU-India cooperation in the Indo-Pacific based on respect of sovereignty, democracy, rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, unrestricted lawful commerce, and peaceful resolution of any disputes. This indicates that they want to prevent any specific country to dominate the region or run it according to its narrative.
EU along with India can provide economic, social, security and political alternatives schemes as the region is attempting to cultivate a balance between the U.S. and China. The vision India holds for the Indo-Pacific is well expressed in its initiatives like the Security and Growth for all in the Region (SAGAR) doctrine. Being geographically positioned within the Indo-Pacific region, India’s strategy towards the region is based on maritime security, disaster management, connectivity, supply chains, and scientific as well as academic cooperation. To address the challenges India faces in the region it has utilized its strategic position to foster relations with the QUAD members, ASEAN and now the EU to support its vision. India is open to the presence of the EU in the region. Lately, it also supported the membership of France to the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). The country also welcomed the Indo-Pacific strategies of the U.K., France, Germany and the Netherlands. The Chinese aggression in South Asia, Southeast Asia and particularly the borders of India has encouraged the country to deepen its relations with other countries, and mitigating the Chinese assertion is a priority for India.
The alignment of India and EU strategies has opened opportunities for both to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific and strengthen their bilateral relations. India and the EU must include ASEAN members in their mutual cooperation and establish multilateral ties to cooperate in the areas of mutual interests. Other than France no other member of the EU is a resident power in the region, hence requires to be consistent and make regular efforts to assure its presence in the region. The EU is not a traditional maritime power in the region, therefore, needs the support of India to establish itself as a maritime power in the region. France is a regional stakeholder and a reliable partner of India, therefore, will have a major role to play in directing the EU-India cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. For the EU to position itself in the region it has to support the regional countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore. As India does share cordial relations with these countries it can back EU’s relations with them and presence in the region. Cooperation in capacity-building in the health sector, post COVID-19 recovery, maritime security, cybersecurity, enhancement of supply-chains, adherence to rule of law, open and free Indo-Pacific along with climate change, disaster management and promotion of green economy must be the center of gravity for EU-India cooperation in the region. Together they have to support the regional powers in establishing the political, security and economic stability along with developing scientific and technical capacity.
Even though India-EU have enormous opportunities to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific, there are certain challenges that needs to be addressed. Firstly, the EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific depends on the way its 27 members cooperate with each other and line up their individual strategies for the Indo-Pacific with the EU strategy. Secondly, for India counterbalancing the Chinese presence in the region is a priority, whereas the EU wants to take a balanced approach towards China. The bloc wants to solve the challenge arising out of China’s assertiveness but not necessarily wants to take an anti-China position. Therefore, both India-EU has to balance this difference in their particular Indo-Pacific strategies. Thirdly, the success of EU-India cooperation in the Indo-Pacific will largely depend on the openness of the regional countries towards them, as well as the Chinese reaction to the EU-India led cooperation. Lastly, India tends to be active and robust in implementing its strategies in the region. The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific has opened new doors for India to play a bigger role in the region. In the end, there is an enormous opportunity to secure their interest in the region, but it is too early to determine their success in the Indo-Pacific.