The increasingly apparent fragility of the rules-based order, as well as a lively debate on security and defence, are stepping up European interest in the Indo-Pacific, Eva Pejsova writes.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for the creation of a “real European army” last November revived a lively debate both outside and inside Europe. Is it the end of the transatlantic romance? How will it impact NATO? Who is supposed to be the enemy? What does it mean for the global strategic chessboard? And is it even feasible?
While the dream of a European ‘army’, in a traditional sense, is probably not likely to materialise overnight, the European Union’s (EU) ambition to boost its strategic autonomy is real and shaping up.
Over the last two years, European security and defence integration have taken a great leap forward. The ‘awakening’ of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – boosting its military readiness; a push for an integrated defence industrial policy through the European Defence Fund – bolstering competitiveness and freedom of operational action; or the recent creation of the French-driven European Intervention Initiative (EI2) are some of the concrete steps undertaken since 2017, signaling a change from its status as a civilian power.
What’s behind this change are multiple external and internal factors. First, there has been the realisation that Europe can no longer simply rely on its transatlantic ally to face its many regional and global security challenges.
It is also an effort to take on greater responsibility as a global security provider. US disengagement from the Iran deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and climate change commitments have revealed the fragility of the global rules-based order and values that Europe wants to champion.
Internally, boosting defence cooperation has finally become a useful element of convergence among often-divided member states, many of whom are facing pressure from rising nationalism, populist movements, and the lasting migration crisis.
As a colleague recently wrote, depending on its scale, the ‘army’ can be understood as a step towards greater responsibility over Europe’s security, hedging against strategic uncertainties, or as an act of emancipation.
Either way, a more strategically autonomous Europe should be better equipped to protect its foreign policy interests.
But what does it all mean for the Indo-Pacific, and what are these interests?
For the longest time, Europe’s efforts to play a role in Asia’s security have been systematically downplayed by traditional regional actors. For Beijing, Europe was merely considered to be echoing US interests. For Washington, it was seen as too opportunistic and not critical enough of China. For both and most other countries in between, the EU was simply a large trading block without any military capacity and with absolutely no say nor added value to regional security.
But times have changed and Europe has never been more concerned and interested in Asian affairs.
One reason for this is China. The multiplication of activities along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) brought many of the region’s problems to Europe’s doorstep. Debt-traps, non-transparent investments, and interference in domestic politics have started to pose a direct threat to the EU’s unity and security.
As the world’s largest trading power, Europe’s prosperity is vitally dependent on Asia’s stability and is sensitive to disruptions, especially in the maritime domain – something it tries to act on through its growing security engagements in and with its Asian partners.
Europe has also become more realistic. The 2016 EU Global Strategy, which provides the guiding principles of its new foreign and security policy, urges for a stronger Europe to address current challenges under the concept of “principled pragmatism” – with international law and its underlying norms as a benchmark.
Subsequent strategies on specific countries and sub-regions, such as the China and India Strategy, echo these principles, and so does its latest Strategy on connecting Asia and Europe, which is of the greatest interest to the Indo-Pacific theatre.
Contrary to some speculations, this strategy does not pretend to counterpoise or compete with the BRI. Rather, it should be read as ‘terms of reference’ for the EU’s vision of connectivity – which should be sustainable, comprehensive, rules-based, and transparent. To achieve that, it encourages cooperation with all stakeholders, including China.
The emergence of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a concept has been closely watched in Brussels. With its geographical scope, focus on connectivity and maritime security, as well as the values of freedom and openness it promotes, it is well aligned to its own interests and ambitions in the region.
The involvement of some EU member states provides an additional incentive. Indeed, Macron’s call for a stronger, more responsible Europe serves France’s own strategic interests well. In a post-Brexit world, France would be the only European country with an effective military presence in the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, France is a close strategic partner of Japan, Australia, and India, and a key driver of European engagement in regional security.
The EU can serve as an amplifier to member states’ foreign policies where interests align, and the Indo-Pacific is certainly one of them. But stability in the region cannot be sustained without taking into account all players, existing institutions and security structures.
Almost a year ago, I pointed out some of the potential dangers with the concept: an escalating rivalry between ‘the Quad’ and China; smaller countries left with a binary choice; and neglect of existing regional cooperative platforms and multilateral governance. These are all still potential dangers today.
With its unique experience, economic weight, and extensive diplomatic network, Europe can provide a much needed normative underpinning as well as greater legitimacy to the new geopolitical construct. The promotion of rule of law, economic integration, cooperative security, multilateralism, good governance, and economic, social and environmental sustainability stand at the core of Europe’s approach to international security, which can be its best contribution to peace and stability in Asia, including some of its greatest security hotspots.
The EU is clearly a different type of a security actor in the Indo-Pacific. In many ways, it can be seen as that odd friend that is too complicated to understand and not very charismatic, but one that shares the same vision and can be trusted to stand up for values that are crucial for making the new regional order sustainable.
The question now is whether this newly found strategic autonomy will translate into an equally ambitious foreign policy. As we gear up for the next European elections in May 2019, populist movements are in the ascendency. The risk is that domestic problems that currently shake European capitals – from the gilets jaunes to rising identity politics, anti-immigration and nationalist tendencies – will distract from maintaining a coherent foreign policy course.
The second, equally important question, is whether traditional Indo-Pacific powers – Australia, India, Japan, and the US at the forefront – will be willing to acknowledge its added value and ready to accept a new, and somewhat odd, player entering the game.