• Benjamin Barton

The European Union and regional security the Indo-Pacific: Quo Vadis?



At a time when many of the Indo-Pacific’s key players are undergoing a recalibration of their strategic stances toward the region, in September of this year, the European Union (EU) launched its Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific as a means of elaborating more clearly the understanding of its role within the region’s geopolitical dynamics. To add more credibility to Brussels’ supposed geopolitical turn, the launch of this strategy paralleled news of an apparent improved effort by some of its member states (France, Germany, Netherlands) to send vessels to the region in their bid to ensure that status quo and order are maintained. Yet, for all the obvious motives and feistier rhetoric driving the EU’s attempts at promoting itself as a better coordinated and more purposeful actor in geopolitical terms, Brussels’ place within this dynamic is anticlimactic at best and still fraught with internal and external constraints.


The Indo-Pacific in the EU’s line of sight

The Indo-Pacific – and its concomitant stability and modernization drive – could not be any more critical to the survival and prosperity of the EU and its member states. After all, as iterated in the Strategy, the EU is the region’s top investor, leading provider of development cooperation, and one of its biggest trading partners. Brussels also sees part of its future tied to ecological, demographic, and digital challenges (to name a few) faced by countries comprising the Indo-Pacific. The EU and the Indo-Pacific have thus grown to become highly interdependent – a reality which has only been further exposed by the negative ramifications triggered by the global outbreak of COVID-19.

For the above reasons, the EU is naturally deeply concerned about any structural shifts which may come to undermine the region’s existing political architecture. These consequently bring into question elements constitutive of the EU’s strategic regional interests, namely: freedom of navigation, a rules-based order, a stable trading environment and the promotion/upholding of key norms (democracy, rule of law, human rights, etc.). Unsurprisingly, the Strategy unofficially recognizes China’s assertiveness, military build-up and territorial claims in and around the East/South China Sea, and the Taiwan Straits as the greatest potential threat to the region’s relatively long-lasting peace. When factoring in the stakes outlined above, it makes sense for Brussels to want to have a greater say in the politics of the region’s security. Yet, for the reasons outlined below, the EU will continue to remain an outsider looking in rather than a kingmaker in the Indo-Pacific.


A touch too soft?


The Strategy makes clear that the EU has made substantial attempts to bolster its regional security presence and intends to further accentuate its impact in this area. For instance, references are made to the EU’s participation in the substructures governing ASEAN’s security architecture (ADMM+, EAS), to the intensification of bilateral dialogues with the EU’s identified partners, to the deployment of military advisors to EU Delegations, to the prospect of the rollout of more Framework Participant Agreements allowing prospective participation in EU Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) operations. The Strategy explicitly states the desire to enhance member states’ naval deployments moving forward. As with many an EU policy document, this cataloging of policy commitments makes for impressive reading. However, this array of promises belies the EU’s strict inability to determine the course of events owing to its superficial hard power capabilities which are conditioned by external and internal complexities. This is because, as explained below, externally the EU is not considered a credible strategic player in the Indo-Pacific while internally, the contradictions which mire the EU’s own foreign policy decision-making simply compound this inability to influence proceedings.

The recent controversy over the AUKUS pact reminded Brussels and member state capitals that their place within the broader strategic regional realm is very much on the sidelines. No member state is currently a member of the Quad or its envisioned extension. In any case, the Strategy only foresees cooperation with the Quad to tackle climate change, digital governance and/or in relation to COVID-19 vaccines – none of which smack of grand strategy designs. If the EU is granted any recognition as a security force worthy of notice in the region, it is usually on symbolic or rhetorical grounds. Washington needs Brussels’ diplomatic support to legitimize its own Indo-Pacific strategy but any other form of support is usually considered a bonus. For many in US policy circles, the Indo-Pacific’s strategic remit is largely out of bounds for the EU. ASEAN may appreciate the EU’s take on multilateralizing the management of regional security concerns but the former’s unwavering adherence to extra- and intra-regional non-interference only serves to keep the EU at arm’s length. Unlike Australia, the EU cannot claim to have extensive bilateral security engagements with some of the US’ treaty allies (Japan, ROK). The EU’s last Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) in the region now dates back more than a decade and a half ago. The real appetite amongst member states to rekindle regional CSDP operations would seem to betray the Strategy’s promising language.


In itself, the Strategy can only do so much. Deprived of any respectable hard power resources, the EU must make do with what it has at its constitutional disposal. In other words, the Strategy is almost exclusively anchored around soft instruments notably the carrots of cooperation on trade, networking opportunities and non-negligible financing on an array of themes (education, research, infrastructure, etc.). Core member states Germany and France are also in the midst of an electoral year – the uncertainty of such processes can foreseeably prohibit any dramatic strategic shifts in the short-term. With the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) still beholden to the whims of intransigent member states and with the majority of member states unwilling to rock the boat with China due to their fears over trade and investment, the CFSP is unlikely to produce actions of a real strategic intent towards the region any time soon.


The EU: More Goliath than David in the Indo-Pacific

In security terms alone, the EU remains one of the world’s most scintillating examples of a successful peace project which rose, against all odds, from the ashes of history’s most destructive and violent conflicts. For all the acumen the EU has drawn from its story of a consolidator of peace-turned-global economic behemoth, it has since failed to convert this status in real geopolitical terms, leaving it to punch well under its weight in regional dynamics extending beyond its immediate neighbourhood. A dearth of progressive leadership coupled to decision-making narrowness have nullified the EU’s global strategic footprint. This is not to say that the EU does not and cannot use its impressive array of soft instruments to help consolidate peace in the Indo-Pacific or inspire others to do likewise. This notwithstanding, if regional actors seek the full involvement of the EU in the Indo-Pacific’s future reordering as a move to maintain peace and prosperity, this will require concerted demand from the region on top of unflinching strategic commitment from EU member state capitals – all easier said than done.


Dr Benjamin Barton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics, History and International Relations (PHIR) at the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, particularly Chinese economic statecraft (as expressed via the Belt-and-Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Road), Chinese security policy (pertaining to its relations to the African continent, South Asia and Central Asia) as well as its bilateral relations with the European Union.

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