Skilled operators: Europe is back in the Indo Pacific

Feb 23, 2021

The US might be coming back to the region, but so too is Europe, a nod to the fact that the central locus of global economic weight and geopolitical activity has moved. However, we need to beware the excessive zeal of Boris Johnson. 

US President Joe Biden tells us that America is coming back to the region. Less noticed is that Europe is, too.

This is good news for Australia. For one thing, no country has more skillful external policy systems than Britain and France.

With French Polynesia still part of Metropolitan France, the French never left the region, and in 2018 were the first European power to announce the genesis of a national Indo Pacific strategy. Together with Germany and the Netherlands, they are the prime movers for a new EU strategy on the Indo Pacific, likely to be rolled out this year.

This enhanced European interest in the region is prompted by an appreciation that the central locus not only of global economic weight, but also geopolitical activity, has moved to the Indo Pacific, not an easy concept for Europeans to grasp.

It is also stimulated by the view in European governments that Chinese external policies potentially menace European security interests, and by the popular perception in Europe that Chinese internal strictures – particularly its policies on Hong Kong and Xinjiang – are seriously at odds with European values.

However EU members, like Japan, tend to frame their security policies more in terms of keeping the region “free and open “ than in the language of Trump and Pompeo, which effectively espoused containment of China.

Britain’s evolving policy on the Indo Pacific is in part based on considerations similar to those of the EU. But having left Europe, it is also seeking how best to justify its self-described independence. In 1962, Dean Acheson commented that Britain had lost an empire but had not yet found a role. Britain is again in search of a role.

These shifting European policies will be evinced by a heightened security presence – albeit a largely symbolic one. A French aircraft carrier visited the region in 2019 and further visits are likely. The British are also to send a carrier this year. Germany and the Netherlands will dispatch smaller vessels to the region.

But symbolism can matter, particularly if backed up by enhanced diplomatic and economic engagement.

Most Asian countries will welcome these developments, if discreetly.

While memories of the colonial past still remain relevant, they are for the most part overshadowed by the realities of the era. But for Covid 19, Boris Johnson was to have been the Guest of Honour at India’s national day. The French and the Indians have close security relations, largely unnoticed here.

Britain’s interest in joining the pithily termed “Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership” (CCTPP) has had a largely positive initial response.

In a recent “State of Southeast Asia” survey of ASEAN states (conducted from 18 November to 10 January by the ISEAS-Yusuf Ishak Institute, a Singapore think tank), Japan again emerged as the most trusted ASEAN partner (67%), but the EU was in second place at 51%.

The key to assisting ASEAN countries to resist Chinese pressures lies not in trying to align them more closely with America – which most wish to avoid – but in helping them further develop the means to maintain their resilience in their own way and with visible support from their friends.

The Southeast Asians have long felt neglected by the United States. Since the Indochina wars, American policy emphasis has been North East Asia. Then there was Trump.

The Europeans, Japan and Australia must put more economic and diplomatic grunt into the sub region and encourage Biden to do so as a policy priority.

Serious economic engagement and development assistance will be all the more important, with increasing evidence that for poorer countries the economic sting of Covid-19 will be in the tail.

The Southeast Asians see the optimum regional outcome of current Sino-United States tensions as multi-polarity, or a system by which a number of power centres balance each other. The Europeans broadly share this view – as was confirmed by a recent comment by a senior French official to Nikkei Asia.

The EU also values its strategic autonomy, all the more given its experiences with Trump. This was manifest in its recent signature of an economic agreement with China, despite the express wish of the incoming Biden administration that it hold off doing so.

Hence one of the benefits of European regional engagement is that while the policies of the Europeans have much in common with the United States and the other Quad countries, their perspectives are different.

We should, however, beware excessive zeal. One concern should be the reported ambition of Boris Johnson to join the Quad. When this was idea floated in the London Times in January, it did not resonate. No bad thing. The assertion that the Quad is a hefty plank in a containment strategy against China is still plausibly deniable. With an extra-regional power whose leader is particularly vocal, denials would sound a tad hollow.

A second unwise tendency is the growth of the Anglosphere as a policy vehicle. As a once discreet “Five Eyes” intelligence group it had – and retains – merit. With its current aspirations to policy salience, you would think the idea derived from conversations in the Drones Club a century ago – and you would be broadly right. The Asians – minus China –seem comfortable enough with the return of Europe, but an echo chamber comprising the two most recent imperial powers and three largely white former British dominions might be a bridge too far.

Thanks to Asialink Insights for permission to publish this article. 

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