Many European countries have begun demonstrating a keen interest in playing a greater role in the Indo-Pacific. A demonstration of this increased interest was evident in the European ministerial forum for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific held in Paris a few days ago.
The meeting was meant to highlight the European Union’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific and to come up with feasible projects for the region. It saw the participation of foreign ministers of the EU member states as well as around 30 countries from the Indo-Pacific region, as well as representatives of major European and Indo-Pacific regional institutions.
The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the forum was an opportunity to showcase “the strength of the links between EU countries and those of the Indo-Pacific and our will, as of now, to strengthen them even further.” It said this will be a cooperation model rooted in multilateralism, rule of law, and effecting “the principles of sustainability, openness and reciprocity.” The forum also highlighted the important role of overseas communities in the various regional institutions of the Indian and Pacific Oceans (Réunion, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia, in particular).
The French Foreign Ministry noted that the Indo-Pacific region is of enormous importance to the European Union given that the region holds 60 percent of global wealth, three-fifths of the world’s population, and has a growing strategic footprint in the changing geopolitical balance. The EU has become more appreciative of the changing Indo-Pacific strategic dynamics, but it is amply clear that these priorities are also driven by France, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Indeed, this emphasis on the Indo-Pacific is consistent with the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which was endorsed by the European Council in October 2021. The strategy identified seven key areas for action including sustainable and inclusive prosperity; green transition; ocean governance; digital governance and partnerships; connectivity; security and defense and human security.
During the plenary, several foreign ministers from the Indo-Pacific region spoke, including Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn of Cambodia, which current chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi of Indonesia, which currently chairs the G-20, and the foreign ministers of India and Japan, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Yoshimasa Hayashi, respectively.
The Indian foreign minister pointed out that “the Indo-Pacific is at the heart of the multipolarity and rebalancing that characterizes contemporary changes” and argued that “it is essential that greater power and stronger capabilities lead to responsibility and restraint.” This, according to Jaishankar, would translate to “respect for international law; territorial integrity and sovereignty… economics free of coercion and politics free from the threat or the use of force… observing global norms and practices… refraining from making claims on the global commons.” These words have an unintentionally ironic ring now, considering what is presently happening in Ukraine.
The plenary was followed by three roundtables focusing on connectivity and digital technology, global challenges (climate, biodiversity, oceans, health), and security and defense issues. The roundtable on connectivity and digital technology had a big emphasis in the European Commission’s Global Gateway strategy launched in December, a broader EU project aimed at augmenting “smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport… for sustainable and trusted connections that work for people and the planet, to tackle the most pressing global challenges, from climate change and protecting the environment, to improving health security and boosting competitiveness and global supply chains.”
This strategy is a continuation of the 2018 Europe-Asia connectivity strategy and aims to raise about 300 billion euro worth of investments between 2021 and 2027 for meeting connectivity goals. The roundtable conversations at the forum looked at how some of these investments could be used in the Indo-Pacific, thus also “support[ing] a lasting, global, rules-based connectivity.”
The roundtable on global issues focused on matters such as climate change, biodiversity, oceans, and health. It explored possible tangible projects on these issues including addressing climate change and its adverse effects, supporting a blue economy and taking forward European action to check marine pollution and illegal fishing, through a number of measures including blue and green alliances with countries in the Indo-Pacific. Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the response mechanisms, and vaccine collaboration including by establishing pharmaceutical manufacturing hubs, was also discussed.
The third roundtable focused on security and defense issues which specifically looked at the implementation of a Coordinated Maritime Presence in the Indian Ocean and initiatives like the CRIMARIO (Critical Maritime Routes in the Indian Ocean) program. CRIMARIO I, in place from 2015 to 2019, furthered Maritime Domain Awareness through a range of activities including information sharing, capacity building and training in the western Indian Ocean. Following CRIMARIO’s success, the EU launched CRIMARIO II from 2020-2024, with an emphasis on law enforcement capacity building activities. This, according to the EU, could augment “its role as a global maritime security provider” while “promote[ing] an open and rules-based regional maritime architecture.”
The proactive European policy toward the Indo-Pacific is a welcome step due to the rise of China, which is a critical element of the current global and regional uncertainties. A balance in the Indo-Pacific cannot be managed by Indo-Pacific powers alone. There is a need for a larger coalition that can call out China on its aggressive behavior. Therefore, much of the region is cautiously optimistic about a proactive Europe.
The sense of optimism comes from the fact that there is a greater European recognition and acknowledgement of the security and strategic problems confronted by the region. But the Indo-Pacific region is also cautious because both Europe, both as a region and as individual countries, has been inconsistent in how it approaches Asia and deals with China.
Nevertheless, it appears that there is greater clarity in Europe about the strategic consequences of China’s rise and how it might be addressed. In fact, the emerging coalition involving Europe and the Indo-Pacific could be the beginning for some efforts to influence the emerging Indo-Pacific and global security order. But there is still some distance to travel before all the different Indo-Pacific strategies and policies converge and produce a coherent approach.