Why Europe Should Stick To Itself

Should Europe play a greater role in Asia? It has its own problems & should pass, argues Jonathan Holslag.

[Read a counter-argument here.]

For a region that has long considered itself the kingpin around which all global events entwined, it creates a somewhat uncomfortable feeling to have to call on China for financial support, to see Indian titans take over iconic brands, and to hear its American offshoot claim that its future is going to be made in Asia. Centuries of European primacy seem to have definitively come to an end, not to mention even the increasingly common fear that the tables might have turned. Rather than being revered as the ultimate role model of good life – balancing economics, social equality, and a creative personal lifestyle – the status of Europe looks reduced to its true geopolitical posture: a tiny tailpiece to Eurasia.

So what?

It is still better for Europe to know what its limitations and key interests are than to make itself ridiculous as a would-be global power. It is rather odd that the Pacific powers expect the European Union to take a greater interest in the strategic turbulence in the region, while they even doubt about the survival of that very entity. I recollect several discussions where Asian diplomats scorned Europe for the state of disarray, but called for a greater engagement into the Asian security architecture a few minutes later.

It seems to be payback time. After two decades of backing its European ally in its own troubled neighborhood, the U.S. expects Europe to come to support in its Pacific backyard.

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This seems to me like enticing a crippled into a hurdle race.

To be sure, a new Asian mission sounds tempting to some European leaders who want to forget a moment about the troubled state they are in. But that is more a matter of anxiety than sober-minded strategic calculations.

There are three important reasons not to get involved in the new nasty high politics of Asia.

First, it is not in our geopolitical interest. Why should we, as many fear, expect China to cut off its own maritime lifelines to Europe? It just does not make sense. More of a threat is that great power rivalry spills over into our backyard – the corridor of qualm that runs from the Belarus, via the Middle East, all the way to Africa. If Europe is to weigh on the Asian powers, it will be by making itself indispensable in its own neighborhood – a region where the Asian powers are the most vulnerable. Most of all, this requires a much more ambitious economic strategy. Are the 380 million people and the vast pool of youngsters less an economic potential than the congested markets in the East? Obviously, Europe also needs the hard power to deal with renegade states like Libya and Syria on its own.

Second, Europe just does not have the capabilities to get involved in Asian security matters. Yes, we had some slight success with a European stability mission in Aceh a few years ago, but that was something of a much smaller scale that what some of the Pacific countries expect today. Europe’s long-range power projection capacity is totally in shatters. It was not able to operate in Libya on its own and now struggles to keep naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden. There, is of course, an urgent need to have more efficient pooling of capabilities at the European level, but even if that were to happen, our military capabilities should be deployed there where they make a difference: supporting regional security building in Africa, enhancing maritime security around the Horn of Africa, guarding the Gulf of Guinea, putting a lid on terrorism in the Sahel, helping European states to watch their security interests in the Arctic, and avoiding total defenselessness in cyber war.

Third, any engagement in Asia would be sheer adventurism if it does not flow from a strategic vision that is shared by all member states. The External Action Service has developed a new kind of strategic concept for East Asia, but this remains more the product of some diligent Eurocrats than the product of a deep reflection among the capitals. The European institutions have a long track record of raising expectations in Asia by issuing bold documents and then to let its partners down because of a lack of consensus. We first need more internal reflection, before we move to external action.

However humiliating it appears, strategic marginalization is the best possible scenario for Europe in the years to come. As the arena of great power politics moves to the East, Europe has both the opportunity and plight to get its own house in order and to concentrate its diplomacy on its backyard. Marginalization is not isolation, though. A stronger neighborhood policy is more in the interest of our partners in the east than a flimsy global engagement. Europe should also continue to guard its economic interests in Asia and diversify its trade relations. Our commercial footprint in Asia is far too Sinocentric. But one no longer requires gunboats to open up markets. Prudence and realism would do for the moment. 

Jonathan Holslag is a research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. His latest work includes 'Trapped Giant' and 'China and India: Prospects for Peace.' This piece first appeared in The European Voice.