The launch in September of the AUKUS partnership among Australia, the UK and the US to supply Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines as well as facilitate cyber-technology cooperation, upset France, which had a conventional sub deal with the Australians. Paris was offended by its treatment by the US and Australia, accusing both of lying.
Yet, while Gallic noses particularly that of President Emmanuel Macron (no fan of either NATO or London’s Global Britain strategy) got out of joint, some EU members quietly viewed the AUKUS arrangement, which is aimed at bolstering the deterrence of Chinese military activities in the Indo-Pacific, to be consistent with Europe’s priorities in the region.
The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy
As it happened – and it was surely not a coincidence – the EU released its “strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” on the same day that Biden and his Australian and British counterparts announced the launch of AUKUS. The unveiling of the EU’s approach to Asia was hardly noticed, and the surprise that AUKUS stirred revealed the shocking lack of coordination and consultation with the EU. To add to the awkwardness, also on that very day, the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State of the Union Address, in which she announced the “Global Gateway”, an EU connectivity strategy presented in a way that made it seem to be an alternative to the BRI.
“The Indo-Pacific is increasingly strategically significant for Europe,” the EU’s strategy for the region begins. “The EU intends to increase its engagement with the region to build partnerships that reinforce the rules-based international order, address global challenges, and lay the foundations for a rapid, just and sustainable economic recovery that creates long-term prosperity.” The document outlines key commitments including the building of “more resilient global value chains” through enhanced partnerships such as with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan for semiconductors. It undertakes to conclude trade negotiations with Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand, resume talks with Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, and forge a trade agreement with ASEAN. It mentions the need to conduct more joint exercises and port calls in the region to ensure maritime security.
China of course is not left out and is mentioned more times than expected, with the issue of human rights repeated in a dozen instances. The strategy does note China’s activities in the South and East China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait, stating that these “may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity”.
Was the publication of the Indo-Pacific strategy a relevant step forward in asserting EU strategic sovereignty? It was to the extent that it set out the European approach to the volatile and polarized region, promoted multilateralism, and expressed some wishful thinking that the US and China avoid the Thucydides Trap of inevitable conflict.
Its own power
The world used to be a place where the EU was comfortable, but times have changed. The global geostrategic landscape has shifted, and the EU should naturally wish to consolidate its members to become a genuine power and not a bystander in a G2 competition.
The EU focuses on geopolitics but with an economic emphasis. One essential way to bolster this approach would be to further an EU-China rapprochement, balancing the risks and opportunities. So far, the EU has been trading with China, while coldly expressing concerns about human rights. There are other topics that require frank bilateral discussion – climate, supply chains, artificial intelligence and other technologies, and the digital economy. These are all issues relevant to the growing relationship between the EU and India, Asia’s other emerging giant.
Shaping a common EU defense strategy in relation to the Indo-Pacific may be difficult because not all European countries feel that China represents a military threat in the way that the US or some Asian countries do. To be sure, the EU has no intention of forging a security alliance with Beijing. As for the growing efforts by the US to contain China as signaled by AUKUS and the Quad, the EU is not all that concerned. AUKUS and any other US actions could eventually inspire the EU to strengthen its relationship with China beyond than trade and investment – the path set out by the CAI, but that is unlikely so long as China behaves more like a partner in the Indo-Pacific than a strategic competitor.