Friday

7th Oct 2022

Opinion

The EU's 'backyard' is not in the Indo-Pacific

  • Shanghai. Europe's Indo-Pacific strategy is so threadbare that it becomes trivial (Photo: Jonathan)
Listen to article

Australia last week scrapped its large order of French submarines to go for a project with the United States instead. It confirms a pressing reality for Europe: it is no longer an Indo-Pacific power. It will not become an Indo-Pacific power. And if it keeps overreaching its geopolitical ambitions, Europe might lose its credibility as a power entirely.

If Europe wants to become more geopolitical, it needs to respect geopolitics' foremost dictum. Geography tells you where to prioritise. For Europe, that's not in the Indo-Pacific, but its backyard.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Europe continues to profile itself as an Indo-Pacific power. Countries like France do too, but also the EU - which recently published an Indo-Pacific strategy. That strategy presents Europe essentially as an economic and soft power.

But Europe's economic power is not impressive. Europe, the UK still included, only buys 15 percent of the region's exports. This is less than the United States and it will soon be overtaken by China. Europe's development aid to the region is stagnant and its investment mainly in China.

The moral power is limited too. Europe states it can assert rules through advanced trade agreements that also include social and environmental norms. But these norms remain difficult to enforce and advanced trade agreements still cover less than 30 percent of Europe's trade with the region. It has no such deal with China, for instance.

A recent survey among Southeast Asian countries confirms that citizens there appreciate Europe championing the rule of law and climate change action, but question its capacity to display leadership.

There also remains a marked gap between the enthusiasm in the discourses of politicians and their willingness to visit the Indo-Pacific.

For decades, Asian diplomats have lamented the lack of interest for European heads of state in the region and their reluctance to participate in summit meetings of regional organisations, like ASEAN.

If one considers official visits by the French president and the German chancellor, for instance, they paid 15 percent of their visits outside Europe to the Indo-Pac, China remaining their most frequent destination.

Europe's military presence is insignificant.

France, for instance, the European country with the largest military footprint in the Indo-Pacific has reduced the number of troops in the area from around 10,000 in 2020 to 2,700.

These are no expeditionary troops; they merely preserve security in overseas territory like Caledonia and Martinique. It has three small frigates to patrol the exclusive economic zone around those islands. Its intelligence satellites reportedly do not even cover the whole area.

The UK has a few hundred soldiers in the Indo-Pacific, mostly in a jungle warfare training facility in Brunei. London recently decided to deploy two large patrol ships for a longer period.

These two assets are supposed to patrol the entire Indo-Pacific. Chinese news media mocked the deployment of these "less-capable warships". The deployment of the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the region remains symbolic. Such a presence can just not be sustained.

This partially explains why Australia replaced the order for French submarines by an order for American submarines. Besides the fact that the American ones will be far more capable, Australia does not just want submarines; it seeks a life insurance.

'Trusted, but impotent'

In the last decade, Europe's annual defence exports have remained steady around $2.4bn [€2.05bn]. Despite an arms embargo, interestingly, annual defence exports to China are still around $260m. Hence, Europe's perception as an opportunistic defence mercantilist; not a strong security partner.

Europe remains an ephemeral power in the Indo-Pacific. It is seen as a trusted partner, but also an impotent partner. Some globalists retort that power is inevitably ephemeral these days, that it is about norms and networks, less about warships and big investments; about being a neutral broker, not an arrogant bully.

Only about two percent of the respondents in southeast Asia identify Europe as the region's most powerful actor, behind China, the US, Japan, ASEAN, and just before South-Korea.

Europe's Indo-Pacific strategy is hence so threadbare that it becomes trivial.

Indo-Pacific activism goes at the expense of more urgent challenges in Europe's backyard. As the US continues to shift to the Indo-Pacific, the power vacuum in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa causes new instability.

That's where Europe should be. It should concentrate investment, trade, diplomacy, and security capabilities on this area if it does not want to become entirely redundant.

Tackling terrorism, piracy, state failure, and regional power politics in this area will likely impress its Indo-Pacific partners more than sending a navy ship through the South China Sea now and then.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels and guest lectures at the NATO Defense College. His latest book is World Politics since 1989 (Polity, September 2021).

Disclaimer

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

French outrage over US security deal exposes EU frustrations

EU foreign ministers were expected to discuss the implication of a security deal between the US, UK, and Australia on the margins of the UN general assembly. The deal has cast a shadow on the bloc's trade talks with Australia.

The fossil-fuel agenda behind EU's carbon-capture plans

The fossil-fuel industry is using the carbon removal agenda to get yet more support for failed carbon capture, which is a key component of the pie-in-the-sky carbon removal technologies being promoted by the EU Commission.

Column

The Iranian regime's expiration date

This 'headscarf revolution' is about women's rights and human rights in general, plus police brutality. Moreover, it is a leaderless revolution that is not driven by a leader or a group, but erupted spontaneously.

News in Brief

  1. Sweden: Nord Stream probe points to 'gross sabotage'
  2. Orbán rails against Russia sanctions at Prague summit
  3. MEPs urge inquiry into Mahsa Amini killing and Iran sanctions
  4. Thousands of Hungarian students and teachers protest
  5. Swedish MEP cuts hair mid-speech to support Iran women
  6. Danish general election called for 1 November
  7. Slovenia legalises gay marriage, adoption
  8. Russia's stand-in EU ambassador reprimanded on Ukraine

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe
  2. The European Association for Storage of EnergyRegister for the Energy Storage Global Conference, held in Brussels on 11-13 Oct.
  3. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  4. European Committee of the RegionsThe 20th edition of EURegionsWeek is ready to take off. Save your spot in Brussels.
  5. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”

Latest News

  1. What actually happened at the 'most complicated election in the world'?
  2. Europe lays aside quarrels to isolate Putin
  3. Spyware-hacked MEPs still seeking answers
  4. EU leaders discuss gas price cap — amid rationing fear
  5. Germany braces for criticism of national €200bn energy fund
  6. The fossil-fuel agenda behind EU's carbon-capture plans
  7. Four weeks to COP27 — key issues and challenges
  8. EU wants to see US list on Russia financing of politicians

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  3. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  6. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us