Politics & Law

The EU's role in the Indo-Pacific

20 September, 2023

The EU and its member states are already playing a constructive role in the Indo-Pacific region’s economic development. It is also in their interests to contribute to efforts to preserve the peace in the South China Sea

By Darryl Lupton


The EU or its individual members states have not had much of a military presence in the Indo-Pacific. However, there has been a change in EU policy as a whole and also how individual member states are viewing their role in this region. The Asia-Pacific had earlier seen the rise of Asian tiger economies and in the last two decades, the Chinese dragon economy has overtaken the entire region’s economic output. The EU and the Indo-Pacific (the new nomenclature reflecting the fluid connection between the two ocean regions with different inferences drawn by different international actors) account for 70% of global goods and services including 60% of foreign direct investment flows, according to “The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific (2021).” It is therefore in the EU’s interests that unfettered free trade continues in this region within the international rules-based order without any economic coercion or acts of aggression. But what is the European answer to maintaining peace and prosperity in this pivotal region? Should it follow a more direct and confrontational United States (US) approach to countering Chinese expansionist policies in the region, attempt possible diplomatic solutions or draw on a philosophy from the region, that is a ‘middle way’ that may prove more effective in constraining Chinese ambitions, thereby avoiding war and subsequent economic turmoil?


The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was released in 2021 by the European Commission. This was in response to the importance this region plays in EU trade and investment and the increasing geopolitical impact the region is having on great power politics. The US embedded itself in the region post WW2 in order to provide peace and stability that would be fostered by economic development. This aim was certainly achieved with the ‘flying geese’ economic paradigm being led by Japan and the economies of South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong following as wages rose in industrialising economies. It was China’s turn in 1978 and an economic boom started that would lead to it overtaking the US economy in 2017, when measured by the purchasing power parity (PPP) metric. However, it was after the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008 that first alerted Beijing to the vulnerability of the US after its brief period of unipolarity and what China saw as American decline and China’s rise.


With the US focused on saving its economy and new-found Chinese confidence, measures were taken by China to secure its claims in the South China Sea (SCS). This was achieved by building seven islands from 2014 on submerged reefs and militarising at least three of them. The result was that China, by way of the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), could now project strength within its self-proclaimed nine-dash line that lays claim to most of the area within the SCS. If China controls this zone, then all ships, commercial or naval, and aircraft, military or civilian, would be subject to Beijing’s will. This could put at risk commercial or energy shipments heading to or from the littoral countries in the SCS and give China complete power over their passage. Would China abuse this power and leverage it to institute a modern-day ‘tribute system’? Or is this dubious claim to the entire neighbouring sea merely a strategy to secure China’s vulnerable southern flank from any possible aggression and would not affect non-military craft? Naturally, China’s nine-dash line has angered the directly affected littoral countries and would also impinge on the free passage of Japan and South Korea’s maritime shipments.


Since 2020, the PLAN fleet size has exceeded the US navy’s and its third aircraft carrier is undergoing sea trials. This means that although overall the US navy is more advanced and blue water capable with eleven ‘flat tops’, China is closing that gap too. Another key takeaway is that without the US in the region pursuing its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), as allowed by international law, no other country would be capable of resisting the PLAN’s force projection in the area and China would rule the SCS and dictate terms to all ships and aircraft passing through or over the region.


It is necessary to understand this background in order to assess the merits of the EU and individual European country’s reasons for choosing to insert themselves into this setting. The EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific emphasises its trade and investment in the region as well as other factors like the geopolitical importance of keeping the region stable, the need to support democratic principles and uphold human rights, cooperate with partners in the region to ensure the rules-based international order in addition to ensuring an acceleration of green tech and digital transitions. In fact, China has wielded influence in the EU as a consequence of its trade and investment interests, and likewise, the EU wants the continuance of a stable and substantial trading regime in a volatile yet vital trading area.

Despite the EU being a supranational organisation, and the existence of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), individual countries can publish their own security documents and send their military to participate in exercises with other countries or operate freely where international law allows. For example, Germany released a ‘China Strategy’ of 60 pages in July 2023. This signals an important shift and aligns Germany closer to US thinking than existed before. The justification is that this ‘modern’ strategy (Germany’s first on China) reflects the current times as China has changed and policy must adapt.


Germany was badly affected by over-reliance on Russia regarding energy imports and half of EU trade with China is German. A strong supporter of being forthright and direct about Germany’s position regarding China has emanated from Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister. In her August 2023 speech to the Australian Lowy Institute, she stressed the importance of the UN Charter and the rules-based international order: “rules ensure common peace and prosperity.” She believes that “cooperation and unity” is how democracies can oppose unilateral measures by autocratic powers. Furthermore, Baerbock emphasised the stake that Germany and the whole world has in keeping trade in the Indo-Pacific, and specifically the SCS, flowing by ensuring the status quo continues, no unilateral changes occur and aggression is curbed. Germany has added teeth to its statements: In 2021, a German warship sailed into the SCS for the first time in almost 20 years. In 2022, the German air force sent 13 military aircraft to joint exercises in Australia. Then in July/August 2023, Germany participated in the Australian-US bilaterally planned exercise (Talisman Sabre), mostly based near Australia. Germany will return in 2025. Translating idealism into realistic goals requires more than just words and admonishments. Displaying hard capabilities adds steel to government declarations and is a good partner to economic carrots. China runs a huge trade surplus each year with the EU at about €365 billion and €84 billion with Germany. Economics is geopolitics; it is therefore to China’s economic advantage to ensure a smooth relationship and to also realise that Germany and the EU will actively pursue peace and work with allies to deter aggression in the region. 


France and the Netherlands also have national Indo-Pacific strategies, the UK too, although it is no longer a member of the EU. A common link is for a stronger presence in the Indo-Pacific where the EU or member states can have a meaningful impact. France’s strategy for the region (2019) is centred on a multi-polar order to ensure stability through international law, including freedom of navigation. By promoting multilateralism and supporting free trade, France’s approach isn’t primarily a military one, Françoise Nicolas of the French Institute of International Relations contends. In fact, more members of the EU need to contribute more in resources and people to make a more unified commitment to the region and demonstrate that it is a current and future stalwart. Is this interaction necessary or will it exacerbate matters in the region? There is certainly a role for European restraint and strong diplomacy. The US is seen by China as being too confrontational and lacking restraint whereas ASEAN is perceived as toothless due to its consensus model that is exploited by China. Japan’s defence spending has long been at 1% of GDP, so the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) will need a decade to expand and deepen its military capabilities. South Korea is very cautious regarding China and has its own concerns with its northern neighbour. Other littoral countries in the region are too weak militarily to challenge China and the PLAN’s astute use of grey-zone tactics. Beijing has recently published its latest map claiming disputed territory that is not backed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), again antagonising its neighbours and heightening tensions. This is where the EU and capable member countries can utilise their navies to show support for peaceful solutions in the Taiwan Strait and contain China’s expansionist intentions that are against the rules-based international order. Certainly Spain, Italy and some Nordic countries could join the aforementioned to show solidarity.


The EU’s maritime involvement in the Indo-Pacific and especially in the SCS is therefore vital to its own (and the world’s) economic interests as it can contribute to ensuring the peace and security of this region. The EU’s strategy for the region also encompasses building sustainable infrastructure through the Global Gateway initiative; in addition, the EU’s programmes extend to addressing climate change, biodiversity and developing the green and digital spheres. By displaying a strong naval presence in the region, the EU will not be aggravating the situation but instead add a calming influence that could help deescalate tension between the US and China. ASEAN is seen as a partner of the EU and its position of centrality is respected. The EU’s more inclusive strategy that strives to be a positive force for stability in the region is welcomed by ASEAN countries. Littoral countries to the region have signalled that they trust the EU to defend their international rights and balance against an assertive China. Not having to choose between China and the US is naturally preferable for countries which would rather have an interlocutor that supports international laws and has a firm approach without being provocative. Balanced diplomacy based on fairness and international law yet backed up by a naval presence may persuade China to agree on a maritime code of conduct, negotiate on UNCLOS rights in the SCS and realise that an invasion of Taiwan would result in concerted opposition by a broad coalition of countries, including the EU.


Dr Darryl Lupton is an Australian academic who is a 2023 Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ research scholar affiliated with National Taiwan University.

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