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Europe casts its lot in the Indo-Pacific Region

GLENN CARSTENS PETERS-UNSPLASH

Last week, the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Manila sponsored my attendance and participation at the Prague High-level Dialogue on the Indo-Pacific, held in the historic city of Prague on June 13 and 14. The event was organized by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the cooperation of some European Union (EU) institutions, to constitute a bridging event by the French and Czech presidencies in the European Council as it highlighted the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.

In the European context, the term “Indo-Pacific” has become linked with an evolving debate about how the EU would position itself vis-à-vis the changing geostrategic dynamics of a region that is increasingly being shaped by the US-China strategic competition. Interestingly, a number of European powers such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Netherlands have cast their lots and joined the fray on the side of their common ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States.

The EU, however, is a complex regional organization and a complicated foreign policy actor. As an intergovernmental organization, it has to balance the diplomatic and strategic interests of 27-member states with different historical contexts and experiences.

On one side of the spectrum are maritime European powers such as France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal that had a long history of engagement with Asia based on discovery, colonialization, trade, and warfare. These maritime power ties with Asia, however, were severed after the Second World War and through the process of decolonization.

On the other end of the spectrum are the continental land-based powers such as Germany, Poland, Sweden, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic that share a continental strategic outlook based on a common fear of Russian expansionism.

Russia’s brutal and unprovoked armed invasion of Ukraine created a powerful sense of unity among the EU member states as it highlighted the importance of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, specifically in terms of deepening the regional organization’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

From Europe’s perspective, there is a growing sense of urgency to hold a wider forum, where the EU and like-minded partners such as the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and some ASEAN member-states, tackle developments, trends, and current issues in the Indo-Pacific, and to explore possible synergies. It was in this context that I was invited to present my views on common security threats confronting both the EU and its like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

THE EU CASTS ITS EYES ON THE INDO-PACIFICCompared to Europe’s once predominant strategic and diplomatic presence in Asia prior to the Second World War, the EU’s contemporary role in the region is a case of benign neglect marked by occasional interest on specific low politics issues in the region. Until recently, the EU played a minor role in the politics and security agendas of the Indo-Pacific countries.

The EU’s primary focus was fostering partnerships with Australia, the ASEAN, Japan, and India on areas where it has vital interests and comparative advantages such as trade, human rights dialogues, substantial cooperation on economic, commercial, and development issues. It had usually shied away from security and political cooperation until the beginning of the 21st century.

Recently, China’s growing power in the region, and the former Trump Administration’s disparaging view of both its Asian and European allies had encouraged many European states and regional organizations, such as the EU and the NATO to maintain a broad array of connections with many Asian countries and multilateral institutions such as the ASEAN and later the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD).

Europe believes that it shares core liberal-democratic values with the US and that these values must be protected from authoritarian states. Its efforts to defend these values do not involve a single European entity acting as a single corporate entity speaking a single voice on all issues. Rather, Europe’s influence and power are projected in the Indo-Pacific region through, a.) the principal European powers, particularly the United Kingdom, France, and Germany; b.) NATO; and more recently, c.) the EU.

FROM STRATEGIC AUTONOMY TO ALIGNMENTPrior to the Ukraine-Russia War, the EU tried its best to be an independent foreign policy actor that could safely navigate between two competing powers, the US and China. The EU does not hide the fact that it shares liberal democratic values with the member states of the QUAD and cherishes its long alignment with the US. These countries’ Indo-Pacific strategies’ core ideological advocacy of freedom and openness, promoting freedom of navigation, free-trade, and a rules-based international order reflects the essence of European multilateralism and the continuity of its own brand of civilian foreign and security policy.

However, the Ukraine-Russia War and China’s economic and diplomatic support to Russia pushed the EU to align its policies with like-minded partners and relevant organizations in security and defense such as NATO and the recent US, Australia, and United Kingdom security partnership, AUKUS. After February 20, the EU found it necessary to strengthen cooperation with NATO, QUAD, and ASEAN, and to develop bilateral tailor-made partnerships with like-minded countries and strategic partners such as the US, Canada, Norway, the UK, Japan, and some ASEAN-member states.

Given these developments, the incoming Marcos Administration should consider the EU as one of its strategic partners in pursuing a balanced and multilateral-based foreign policy in a changing Indo-Pacific region.

Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro is a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

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