In recent years, European countries have been engaged in an effort to “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific in order to counter China’s rise and its more assertive behavior. But in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this is not the best way Europe can contribute to allied security priorities.
This month, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Jens Stoltenberg, made a trip to Asia to try to deepen the alliance’s ties with the region. This trip took place after years of deepening European involvement in Indo-Pacific security. For instance, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the European Union published Indo-Pacific policy documents; the United Kingdom deployed a carrier strike group to the region as part of its self-declared “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific; NATO members held their first dedicated debate on Taiwan; and Germany took part in the Australian Air Force’s multinational exercise “Pitch Black” for the first time. Just last month, the U.K. and Japan signed an access agreement that would allow the U.K.to base troops in Japan.
Scholars have also written about how NATO should assume a greater role in countering China. In even more granular terms, a recent report by the RAND Corporation outlined how the United States and France could improve Army cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
But for all France’s talk of being an “Indo-Pacific power,” or the U.K. “tilting” toward the Indo-Pacific, would European countries actually assume important security roles in potential key flashpoints in the Indo-Pacific? Posed more bluntly, in a Taiwan contingency, for instance, would European militaries actually show up? Given resource constraints and non-existent defense commitments, such an effort is unlikely. As such, Europe needn’t bolster its military presence in the Indo-Pacific and should instead focus on contributing more to European security, especially amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Large parts of the U.S. foreign policy community fret over the United States’ ability to prevail in a conflict with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China’s decades-long military modernization, particularly its development of a large arsenal of precise ballistic and cruise missiles and a blue-water navy, has eroded U.S. primacy in the Indo-Pacific. As U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall put it in 2021, “we’re the dominant military power until you get within about 1,000 miles of China.”
Consequently, assessments of the United States’ ability to achieve victory in a China-U.S. war have grown increasingly pessimistic. For instance, the National Defense Strategy Commission, a review mandated by Congress of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, warned that in a China-U.S. war over Taiwan, the United States “could face a decisive military defeat.” Such a risk appears to be perceived as increasing over time. A poll conducted in 2020 of U.S. national security experts by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that only 54 percent of respondents thought that the United States would prevail in a conflict with China come 2030, down from 79 percent who thought that the U.S. could win that year.
If the U.S. is at risk of losing a war with China over Taiwan, or at the very least has the potential of suffering major military losses, European militaries have much to fear, as their military capabilities pale in comparison to the United States’. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), defense spending by the U.K. and France, for instance, amounted to a mere 8 percent and 7 percent of U.S. defense spending in 2021, respectively. As such, European forces are far more vulnerable and can bear far fewer losses in a conflict. Consider that the U.K. has two aircraft carriers and France only has one. A recent wargame study by CSIS, which ran 24 game iterations of a Taiwan contingency, found that the U.S. typically lost two of its aircraft carriers (it has 11).
European countries are likely to also be less willing to put their forces at major risk, as they, unlike the United States, do not have their reputation as a security provider in the Indo-Pacific on the line. A common argument in favor of the U.S. defending Taiwan is to preserve the United States’ credibility as a security provider. Washington has five formal allies in the Indo-Pacific: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. Were Washington to abandon Taiwan, U.S. allies might consequently doubt the U.S. commitment to their security as well. This could encourage countries to be more deferential to China’s interests, as well as embolden China to more aggressively pursue its interests (such as in the South and East China Seas).
In contrast, no European power has a formal ally in the Indo-Pacific or even an ambiguous alliance with Taiwan. The U.K. and France had once both been members of the so-called “Asian NATO,” the South East Treaty Organization (SEATO), which disbanded in 1977 and had also included Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, and the U.S. For additional perspective, consider that it is even unclear if regional U.S. allies (such as Japan and South Korea) would grant the U.S. access to the United States’ own military bases in a Taiwan contingency, let alone commit their own forces to support the U.S. in a war with China.
Moreover, consider that after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, the United States has been providing the overwhelming majority of military, financial, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine (totaling over $50 billion). If European countries have been somewhat averse to committing resources for combating a crisis on their own continent, as Germany’s months-long dithering over the Leopard 2 tanks acutely demonstrated, one should not expect them to make major and consequential contributions to a conflict in the Indo-Pacific where European forces would be both more vulnerable and have far less at stake.
As such, China is unlikely to fear European intervention in the event of a Taiwan contingency and change its calculus. As Mike Green, the former director for Asia on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration quipped: “I don’t suspect that the PLA expects to fight the Queen Elizabeth or the Charles de Gaulle” – the flagship aircraft carriers of the U.K. and France.
Granted, France will want to maintain some level of military presence in the Indo-Pacific due to its overseas territories in the region. But rather than try to bolster their military presence in the Indo-Pacific to change China’s calculus, European countries should instead devote more resources to defending themselves from Russia. The effort to aid Ukraine after Russia’s invasion was a sharp reminder of how the United States has to do much of the heavy lifting for European security. Some European countries, such as France and the Netherlands, have made positive steps toward increasing their defense spending. But it would be painfully ironic if after decades of U.S. complaints that Europe is not doing enough to provide for its own security, Europe starts diverting resources “out of area,” especially amid the outbreak of the first large-scale war in Europe since World War II.
If Europe took greater responsibility for defending its own neighborhood it would, in fact, be a more effective Indo-Pacific partner, as it would allow the U.S. to devote more resources and time to the Indo-Pacific (which it has been attempting to do since the mid-2000s). Support for Ukraine, as scholars have highlighted, will inevitably require some tradeoffs with efforts to help defend Taiwan. As the Biden administration made clear around the time of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it wants to free up time and resources from other military engagements to focus on the Indo-Pacific.
Europe’s growing interest in the Indo-Pacific is commendable, but given more pressing security priorities at home, coupled with resource constraints, the best way Europe can support the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is by staying in its lane and freeing the United States to focus on providing security in the Indo-Pacific.