28th Jan 2023


EU lagging behind in Indo-Pacific race

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If the geopolitical pivot towards the Indo-Pacific was a race, then the European Union risks lagging behind at the turn.

The US has just inked an economic and trade framework — IPEF — that covers the members of the Quad and seven ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines.

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Some 18 months have passed since China agreed a mammoth free trade deal — RCEP — with all ASEAN members, plus Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

The European Commission presented a joint communication on the 'EU's Indo-Pacific Strategy' in September 2021, but many EU members are yet to agree on making it a geostrategic priority.

This is why EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was still speaking of "visions" and "intentions" for the region at this month's EU-Japan summit.

It is true that the region is more of a political construct than a geographic one. Regardless, its geopolitical importance cannot be overlooked. Time for the EU to ignite the afterburners and catch up with the race leaders.

The nations comprising the region's core are home to more than 50 percent of the world's population, 3,000 different languages, and several of the world's largest militaries, as notes the United States Indo-Pacific Command.

Asia alone will comfortably deliver more than 60 percent of global economic growth by the end of the current decade. Its middle classes are expanding at unprecedented rates and could exceed 3 billion people by 2030.

Europe's vision of the Indo-Pacific has been defined by core interests of democratic and economic development. This needs to expand, as security and defence-related issues come to the fore.

It is obvious that China has always recognised such breadth of engagement (look no further than its shock security pact with the Solomon Islands), while US president Joe Biden's IPEF deal is just one part of an effort to provide Asian countries with an alternative to China across multiple spheres.

It was positive therefore to read the words of Gabriele Visentin, the EU's special envoy to the Indo-Pacific. He spoke recently of a resolve to strengthen the Union's defence strategy "whenever necessary", and to defend the bloc's interests more firmly — including the multilateral rules-based order.

The re-election of president Emmanuel Macron in France, who showed significant interest in the Indo-Pacific during his first term in office, is another boost.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has accelerated EU action on global security and defence policy, breaking down several of the barriers — not least the lack of a coherent strategic culture among members — that have restricted progress on this front.

The question is whether this is a genuine turning point, and one that can translate further afield.

Right partners

The EU's success in the Indo-Pacific will depend on engaging the right partners. Beyond the traditionally like-minded — think Australia or New Zealand — the Philippines presents an intriguing opportunity.

A well-established democracy, with an economy that is recovering faster post-pandemic than almost any of its neighbours, it is transitioning to a new administration after six years under the provocative but domestically popular Rodrigo Duterte.

His successor, Bongbong Marcos, takes office in a matter of weeks. He is making reassuring statements about engaging constructively with the international community — both East and West.

While the Philippines is traditionally seen as a Western ally, the Duterte administration conducted a policy of appeasing China, although that has faced setbacks in recent months over mounting tensions in the South China Sea.

Concerns that the incoming president Ferdinand Marcos would quickly pivot to China appear to be unfounded. His campaign message of unity looks set to apply to his foreign policy too, with a clear keenness to act as a bridge between China and the West.

While he has spoken about shifting ties with China to a "higher gear", he has also been firm about upholding The Hague's Permanent Court of Arbitration's 2016 ruling against Beijing over the South China Sea, and spoken warmly about boosting trade ties with the US — including through IPEF.

With war returned to its borders and the post-pandemic recovery ongoing, the EU finds itself in a radically altered strategic context.

If there is geopolitical good to come out of these human tragedies, it will be in the new and renewed strategic partnerships they create — on energy, on defence, and around shared values.

Cooperating with increasingly important players such as the Philippines, set to have an independent strategic mindset under new leadership, is a logical starting point.

The new Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, will offer a similarly pragmatic and positive approach to dialogue and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Indo-Pacific was right at the top of the agenda for key global policymakers.

The EU would be well advised to re-engage in this theatre, not just via its traditional economic might, but in the interests of defending the rules-based multilateral order and guaranteeing peace.

Author bio

Jean De Ruyt is Belgium's former EU ambassador.


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

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