Quad a forceful idea: EU must have a more strategic China policy

The EU, part of the western alliance, can no longer remain a balancing power between America, the Quad and China, writes Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd) for South Asia Monitor

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The Quadrilateral (Quad) initiative of India, Japan, the US and Australia is symptomatic of a new world order dominated by the Indo-Pacific as the defining geopolitical theatre of this century. The geographic scope of the Indo-Pacific is still to be finally established. Strategic experts like Dr. Harsh Pant note that drawing precise geographic borderlines becomes less important since the Indo-Pacific is primarily a geostrategic concept.

 The Westphalia order established by World War II initially responded cautiously to China’s aggressive foreign policy and continued violation of sovereign land, waters, and airspace of neighbouring states required an increasingly muscular response. The Quad with its commitment to a rules-based order with three members outside the P5, represented the first realistic and evolving response to China’s aggression by sea and land, especially in the Indo Pacific. China remains the unspoken, but understood, the target of Indo-Pacific cooperation. 

For the EU, the Indo-Pacific region represents the second-largest market outside Europe and is therefore of great strategic and economic importance. The majority of European trade crosses the sea lanes in the South China Sea to reach four of the EU’s top trading partners. Lack of a united EU Indo-Pacific position impacts a European Union which post-Brexit looks to expand its role as a security actor in Asia.

EU’s absence of China policy

Despite the much-vaunted Common Foreign and Security Policy post-Lisbon, the EU has not been able to agree on a China policy. Germany continues to see China through the tinted lens of German carmaker Volkswagen and other big German big businesses.  

A  hastily-adopted China EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment or CAI,  in the last days of December 20 under Angela Merkel’s German presidency, reinforced the perception of the world’s biggest economic grouping ignoring China’s threats in a naive quest for joint economic bounty.

 It is unclear how the agreement is compatible with Germany’s Indo-Pacific strategy of diversifying its economic partnerships to avoid ‘overdependence on a single market’ or its agenda of human rights promotion in the region. The CAI repackages past commitments made by China that have yet to be met. It fails to commit China to new, concrete
targets on labour standards. It cedes precious leverage the EU previously held and conveys a totally wrong signal to China. 

Trade considerations are stark and simple. China is Germany’s single largest trading partner. German industry - from carmaker Volkswagen to the chemicals giant BASF - are commercially dependent on China. Merkel has consistently placed their stakes above Germany’s wider strategic interests.

Germany’s policy proposal outlined German concerns: “A new bipolarity with fresh dividing lines across the Indo-Pacific would undermine [our economic] interests.” Germany’s distrust stems from the USA’s more confrontational Indo-Pacific strategy - with containment at its core - which Germany fears could escalate confrontation with China.  Germany’s instinct is to be a pole between China and the US, rather than align with either. 

The result is confusing and contradictory signals from the world’s largest economic grouping. Three other important founder members - France, Germany, and the Netherlands - have announced their Indo-Pacific visions including strengthening their ties with India.  

What is more troubling is that the newer EU Member States continue to have a separate dialogue with China in violation of the Lisbon Treaty.  Brussels has not been able to rein in the 16 Central and Eastern EU countries who continue their separate ‘16 plus 1’ dialogue with China. This separate dialogue is an ominous indication that a future EU strategy will simply accommodate the ‘lowest common denominator’ of the interests of all 27 States.  EU requires unanimity in its foreign policy decisions.

Brussels is facing a conundrum. Fully aware that Asian security is intimately connected to European economic prosperity, the Commission desires to formally acknowledge the new power narrative of the Asia-Pacific by adopting a forward-looking Indo-Pacific strategy in sync with the Quad. The growing relevance of the Indo-Pacific in European discourses is also apparent by the EU’s recognition of India as a crucial player in Asia.

Some analysts identified the evolution of a European approach to the Indo-Pacific in its changed language articulated publicly on China, which is described as "simultaneously a cooperation partner… a negotiating partner … an economic competitor … and systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance".  

EU faces profound structural challenges when it comes to deploying power internationally.  France is the only EU Member State that has the political will and capability to meaningfully project hard power abroad. As Brussels moves beyond the German desire of strategic autonomy, of being a pole between the USA and China, the stakes are very high for the EU to develop a more strategic China policy based on realpolitik rather than just trade.

Once a strong advocate of the German position, the UK’s changing relationship with China reveals how the UK is trying to re-assert its position globally post Brexit. Whether Quad or EU would take the bait remains to be seen. The Quad does not lack strategic assets in the area. Nevertheless, UK announced its intentions to deploy its strategic assets. Later this year the Queen Elizabeth Carrier Strike Group will make its maiden voyage to the Indo Pacific. The UK argues that its tilt is driven by the threat China itself poses to a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific. 

Quad, an idea whose time has come

The Quad is the first entity to acknowledge that engagement with China determined to establish its primacy in a new world order comes perilously close to appeasement. The EU, part of the western alliance, can no longer remain a balancing power between America, the Quad and China.

A visit down memory lane should suffice to remind EU leaders of their own history.  The policy of appeasement and the peace at Munich which collapsed leading to World War II is an ominous indication that unless checked,
history can repeat itself. Will the EU finally arrive at that elusive consensus before it is too late?

Best-known French writer Victor Hugo had said: “You can resist an invading army,  But you cannot resist an idea whose time has come.”

The Quad is a forceful idea whose time has come. It rejects appeasement and recognizes the challenges of China’s unimpeded rise. Quad marks the emergence of new world order.

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