Thursday

4th Mar 2021

Column

An EU strategy for Indo-Pacific must be clear and credible

"Extreme competition" between America and China has guaranteed the region formerly known as the Asia-Pacific a permanent place in the geopolitical hall of fame.

Myanmar's military take-over has further ratcheted global attention.

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  • Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative reaches deep into the nooks and crannies of the Indo-Pacific

There are no easy responses to either challenge. Navigating the choppy waters of the Indo-Pacific (now the preferred term for a region which covers both the Pacific and Indian Oceans) is a treacherous task.

So it is good news that EU foreign ministers are likely to be e-joined by US secretary of state Antony Blinken on 22 February to discuss these and other issues.

The expected meeting will send a reassuring signal of America's readiness to inform and consult European allies.

Equally reassuringly, it raises hopes that despite talk of a calamitous new Cold War, responsible US and EU policymakers are ready to hold a sensible conversation on their convergences and divergences over China.

US experts foresee an uneasy US-China relationship shaped by either "cooperative rivalry", "managed competition" or "competitive co-existence" in the coming years.

In Brussels, the focus is on dealing with China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival.

A transatlantic conversation on preventing further chaos in Myanmar is also needed but other key players, including China, Southeast Asian countries, Japan, India and Australia must be consulted.

No miracles

Expect no miracles. For both the US and the EU, drawing up credible and comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategies will require tenacity, patience and flexibility.

Described as the "most populous, dynamic and consequential region in the world", the Indo-Pacific defies simplistic reasoning as well as single narratives, facile stereotyping and feel-good reflexes.

The region is complicated – and becoming even more so.

Rich in resources, the Indo-Pacific is also the world's most important transportation hub with an estimated 60 per cent of world trade, including oil and gas, crisscrossing busy sea lanes.

Myanmar is one obvious illustration of frail governance in the region. But jostling for attention across the Indo-Pacific is a motley mix of democracies and authoritarian regimes as well as governments which are quite simply neither one nor the other - or are slipping down democracy rankings.

Nationalism is on the rise, giving added traction to old rivalries and creating new ones. Already heavily-armed nations are buying even more weapons - many of them from Europe.

However, the Indo-Pacific is also about intra-regional cooperation and connectivity, vibrant trade and investment networks, buoyant tourism and cultural exchanges.

Notwithstanding brave talk about re-shoring supply chains, strong economic growth rates are testimony to the resilience of Indo Pacific economies and their continuing attraction for foreign exporters and investors.

Climate change, poverty and digital divides are a challenge. Yet many countries are also showing impressive strength in tackling Covid-19, overcoming poverty and in responding to environmental concerns.

Discrimination against minorities is rife and media freedoms are under assault. Despite the odds, however, human rights activists, empowered women and an educated middle class are pushing back with equal intensity wherever and whenever possible.

And then, there is China.

Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative reaches deep into the nooks and crannies of the Indo-Pacific, providing governments with funds for much-needed land and maritime connectivity projects.

Crafting a strategy which captures and responds to the many complexities of the Indo-Pacific is no easy task. Still, many are trying.

ASEAN quandary

With their focus on hard maritime security and plans to establish a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific", Japan, Australia and India (who, along with the US, are also members of the so-called 'Quad') have – at least tacitly – opted for an anti-China stance.

However, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) talk of an inclusive Indo-Pacific, reflecting their determination to stay on good terms with Beijing and remain at the core of the region's informal security structures.

Among EU states, France, Germany and the Netherlands have set out their different and not very aligned Indo-Pacific visions.

The EU can and should go further.

With its vast network of trade agreements and comprehensive partnership pacts across the region, the bloc is already an active and significant Indo-Pacific actor.

It should now significantly up the game by joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) trade pact and exploring the possibility of becoming a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership deal (RCEP).

Eschewing pressure to emulate others' hard security stance and anti-China bias, the EU can help create an inclusive and balanced rules-based regional order by working with ASEAN, the US and other Asian nations – and Britain - when appropriate.

The EU's regulatory power can assist in cooperative Blue Economy endeavours while Green Deal diplomacy can give a boost to the region's climate change efforts. An EU connectivity blueprint includes norms and standards which can help Indo-Pacific decision-makers.

Finally, while the focus is almost solely on so-called Great Powers in the region, EU policymakers must work quickly to bring other South Asian nations into the wider Indo-Pacific conversation.

Additionally, South Korea must not be ignored.

Drafting a new strategy for the Indo-Pacific gives EU policymakers an important and much-needed opportunity to reflect on the bloc's collective strengths and weaknesses as a global foreign and security policy actor.

A well-crafted collective EU policy for the Indo-Pacific will be good for the region but also for Europe.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She also teaches Europe-Asia relations as visiting professor at the College of Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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