EU's new Indo-Pacific strategy is in sync with India's security perspective

The new strategy is a most welcome development for India, which had been juggling its national security interests in this vast and volatile region with support, as usual, from France, writes Amb. Bhaswati Mukherjee  (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Virtual EU-India Leaders’ Meeting

A new 21st-century foreign policy is being written in the background of new battle lines being drawn in the Indo-Pacific. The ‘Great Game’ now stretches from Afghanistan to this vast area of immense geopolitical significance. 

After the fall of Kabul on 15 August 21, international and strategic affairs experts Dr. Harsh Pant noted: “For the US, the fall of Afghanistan is the most consequential foreign policy crisis. Pax Americana may or may not end in Kabul but Washington will have to set new terms of engagement with the world after its disastrous retreat in the face of terror onslaught in South Asia.”

The new EU Indo Pacific Strategy announced on 16 September 21, followed by the first in-person QUAD Summit in Washington DC on 24 September 21, demonstrates a push back by the West and emerging powers to these ominous developments. For the EU (European Union), from shying away from the term ‘Indo Pacific’ two years ago to now, the transition was remarkable.  

The move was long overdue. Brussels was aware that the absence of a robust EU Indo-Pacific policy impacted the EU’s position. Post-Brexit, the EU had looked to expand its role as a security actor in Asia. The emergence of AUKUS ((an Indo-Pacific trilateral security coalition between Australia, the UK and the US) underlined that it was the UK that, post-Brexit, was moving into this vacuum.

The economic priorities could not be overlooked either. The Indo-Pacific region represents the second-largest market for the EU outside Europe. The majority of European trade crosses the sea lanes in the South China Sea to reach four of the EU’s top trading partners.

Contradictory strategies

The process was not easy. The distrust stemmed from the US and AUKUS’ more confrontational Indo-Pacific strategy – with containment at its core.  Some EU members, led by Germany, preferred EU to be a pole between China and the US, rather than align with either.

Brussels was facing a conundrum. The new strategy, elaborated after both internal debate and external consultations with important strategic partners, including India, now formally acknowledges the new power narrative of the Asia-Pacific.

The strategy thus marks a new approach to the region even if it is driven by France, Netherlands and a reluctant Germany. France, which will be taking over the EU Presidency, intends to hold a summit on defense. Brussels has summarized the new consensus within the EU on the Indo-Pacific as a strategy not aimed at confrontation but cooperation with China unless Beijing’s actions threaten the open rule-based order.

The careful drafting underlines the delicate consensus among 27 member states, given that some of them still prefer engagement, because of economic interests. It also demonstrates the dilemma of the EU’s role as a foreign policy actor vis-a-vis national priorities.

The indifference of some member states in Central and East Europe to the strategy remains a matter of concern. There are common concerns that impact all EU member states. One of them is the shortage of semiconductors. The strategy will be adopted by the European Parliament. EU’s position is bound to harden over time if China’s intransigence increases in the region.

Europe-China relationship tensions

A new EU Special Representative on the Indo-Pacific, Ambassador Gabriele Visentin, has been appointed. He will be visiting India for consultations.   For India, whose External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar welcomed the new Indo-Pacific strategy at the recent meeting of the EU Council of Ministers, the strategy marks a significant shift towards recognizing India’s priorities and concerns in the region. 

For the first time, the EU publicly acknowledged: “The futures of the EU and the Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked, given the interdependence of the economies and the common global challenges.”

Of greater significance was the assertion: “The Indian Ocean is the principal passage for Europe to and from Indo-Pacific markets. Stability and freedom of navigation in this area are therefore vital.”  Although the nature of the challenge has been gingerly and tentatively defined, the call to action is a clear affirmation of a shift in position. No other European Indo-Pacific strategy has explicitly highlighted these tensions in Europe-China relations.

“There has been a significant military build-up, including by China, with the Indo-Pacific’s share of global military spending increasing from 20 percent of the world total in 2009 to 28 percent in 2019. The display of force and increasing tensions in regional hotspots ……may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity.”

The break with the past lies in the frank affirmation: “The EU will also aim to deepen its engagement with partners that already have Indo-Pacific approaches of their own -  ASEAN, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. The EU would also be interested in engaging with the QUAD.”

Coming from the EU, the warning is blunt and for a change, frankly conveyed.  “The EU ….working with international partners who share similar concerns, will continue to protect its essential interests and promote its values while pushing back where fundamental disagreements exist with China, such as on human rights.”

Defense and security measures

Finally, the long-awaited reference to the use of hard power can be interpreted from the following: “The EU seeks to promote open and rules-based regional security architecture, including secure sea lines of communication, capacity-building and enhanced naval presence in the Indo-Pacific in accordance with the legal framework established by the UNCLOS (The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) adopted and signed in 1982).”

“The EU and the Indo-Pacific partners face increasingly similar security challenges and threats. The EU is “Exploring ways to ensure enhanced naval deployments to protect the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific to boost Indo-Pacific partners’ capacity to ensure maritime security.”

The EU's focus seems to be on ensuring a “meaningful” European naval presence. This pre-supposes greater intra-European coordination. The reference to increasing joint naval activities including inter alia joint exercises, port calls, reinforcing EU naval diplomacy and participating in multilateral exercises is of particular significance.

Other defense and security measures include defense diplomacy, deployment of military advisors to EU delegations and setting up security and defense dialogues with EU’s strategic partners on issues ranging from counterterrorism, cyber security, and maritime security. It has already started pilot programs to explore closer security cooperation with India.  

The new strategy is a most welcome development for India, which had been juggling its national security interests in this vast and volatile region with support, as usual, from France. The strategy, along with the creation of AUKUS, gives India much-needed breathing space to deal with China.

My book on ‘India and the EU: an Insider’s View’ points out: “A nation’s foreign policy is strongly influenced by its history, geographic location, its strategic environment, the imperatives of its neighborhood and the perception of its status in the international community. This is true for both India and the EU.  Both are pursuing domestic and foreign policy agenda while facing many new global challenges. Their responses are naturally based on their national security templates. In doing so, they are also shaping new world order. Are their responses in tandem with each other? Can they be strategic partners in this new millennium?”

It seems so now! If Pax Americana ended in Kabul, it was reincarnated in the Indo-Pacific through AUKUS. The new and complex challenges to maintain that elusive regional equilibrium require the support of both EU and India. The strategy reflects a coming of age of the EU’s defense and security policy post-Brexit. It also brings the EU much closer to sharing India’s security perspective.   The future of their strategic partnership finally seems assured.    

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador. The views expressed are personal)