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No Fast Track to a Stable Rules-based International Order

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The third EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum in Brussels on 2 February 2024 confirmed that EU cooperation with the Indo-Pacific region is alive and well. 



No fast track to a stable rules-based international order: Ukraine and Gaza wars complicate EU engagement in the Indo-Pacific

The third EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum in Brussels on 2 February 2024 confirmed that EU cooperation with the Indo-Pacific region is alive and well. The informal meeting brought together foreign ministers – or their representatives – from the 27 EU member states and their counterparts from many Indo-Pacific countries, in total 70 delegations. The first meeting of the EU-Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum took place in Paris in February 2022. The second such Forum followed in Stockholm last May. Seeing these Forum meetings becoming integral to the EU’s external action is encouraging. Indeed, much is at stake in the EU’s Indo-Pacific partnership, launched in September 2021 with the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Jointly drafted by the High Representative and the Commission, this text fleshed out the guidance that EU member states provided in detailed Council conclusions a few months earlier.

The Indo-Pacific has become – and will remain – the world’s centre of gravity. With almost half the world’s population and half its GDP, it is the beating heart of the global economy. It is also where the arteries run: 60% of the world’s seaborne trade – by volume – passes through Indo-Pacific waters. Much of it involves the EU. As the EU’s second-largest export destination, the region relies heavily on the EU as its primary source of foreign direct investment. The prosperity of the EU depends on the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific also plays a pivotal role in the broader geopolitical landscape as the epicentre of the global competition between the United States and China. The EU and the Indo-Pacific are intertwined geopolitically, with any turmoil in the region directly impacting the EU. The Indo-Pacific is also home to some of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, notably China and India. Climate action will only be effective with these countries on board.

The end of the Cold War and accelerating globalisation, technological advances, and growing interdependence have transformed the world into a single strategic theatre, with the Indo-Pacific at its centre. The EU’s increased engagement in the Indo-Pacific is a recognition of this reality. No doubt, with Ukraine in mind, India’s Foreign Minister Jaishankar nevertheless last year urged Europe to “get out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems”. Conversely, the Indo-Pacific is affected by developments on the European continent. “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow”, Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida said a few months after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Many interpreted this as a reference to China’s increasingly assertive behaviour. Concerns arose that China might take military action to control Taiwan. The most prominent links between the war in Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific region are the “no limits” partnership that China and Russia declared in February 2022, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, and North Korean arms shipments to Russia. The war in Gaza also casts a harsh light on the perceived double standards of the West in dealing with the humanitarian situation of the Ukrainians and the Palestinians in Gaza, respectively. At the Forum, the foreign ministers of Indonesia and Singapore recalled the importance of uniform application of international law.

Beyond such linkages, the broader question for the EU, as it looks east, is what priority it can give to the Indo-Pacific when so much of its attention and resources focus on two high-intensity wars in its neighbourhood, Ukraine, and Gaza. The EU’s implicit message at Friday’s Forum was that it is committed to its Indo-Pacific engagement despite this problematic context. But reality may threaten this promise. The war in Ukraine could last much longer and be much more costly than the West hopes. Tragically, the war in Gaza could ignite the entire Middle East, especially if Iran becomes directly involved.

The challenges would be even more daunting if Donald Trump is re-elected US president in November. Any new US administration will insist that Europe increase its investment in defence. To free up significant US resources, Trump would almost certainly also press the EU to do the heavy lifting in support of Ukraine, even though the EU already plays an impressive role there. He may promptly impose on Europe a degree of strategic autonomy that the EU hopes to gain gradually over time. But here, a quick fix does not exist.

This year’s Forum focused on critical issues of our time: geopolitical and security challenges in the Indo-Pacific, shared prosperity, economic resilience, and investment, as well as accelerating the green and energy transition. Opening the Forum, High Representative Borrell highlighted some of the EU’s recent steps to strengthen relations with the region, including the long-awaited signing of the Samoa Agreement with the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States, which puts development cooperation on a modernised footing; the launch of negotiations for a new Partnership Agreement with Bangladesh; developing digital collaboration with Japan, Singapore, the Republic of Korea and India; helping partners advance their green agendas, with important aid commitments to Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines; strengthening security and defence partnerships with several countries, including to launch joint naval exercises.

This progress is welcome. However, the implementation of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy has unnecessarily suffered in its early stages from the EU’s reluctance to acknowledge the scale of the challenges that lie ahead. The discourse was one of celebration rather than a sober assessment of the potential pitfalls of its implementation. While the EU has never conclusively defined the geographical scope of its Indo-Pacific strategy to maintain flexibility, it has targeted dozens of very different countries from the outset. Moreover, the strategy encompasses seven challenging priority areas: sustainable and inclusive prosperity, green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnerships, connectivity, security and defence, and human security. Even in the best circumstances, upgrading the relationship will be a generational task. A particular difficulty is that implementation must rely mainly on the resources of existing assistance programmes. One notable exception is the connectivity area: partners should be able to draw on the €300 billion that the EU’s Global Gateway Initiative aims to attract from public and private sources.

China’s increasingly combative posture as it vies for a global leadership role is the geostrategic backdrop to the EU’s intensifying bilateral and multilateral relations with the Indo-Pacific region. China is seeking to roll back US influence, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, where the US has long been dominant. By endorsing an Indo-Pacific strategy, the EU has joined other countries and organisations that have developed their strategy or vision for the Indo-Pacific. These include the US, Japan, India, Australia, ASEAN and, in the EU, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Others have followed. All stress the importance of a rules-based international order. In this sense, “Indo-Pacific” is more than a geographical term. It carries political weight.

However, there are significant differences in how partners define the geographical scope of the Indo-Pacific (for the EU, it spans from the east coast in Africa to the Pacific island states), the role they attach to broad cooperation with others and most importantly, how they view China. While Donald Trump resolutely sought to contain China, even talking of decoupling, many others, including the EU, remain open to constructive engagement. Japan, India, Australia and South Korea, to name but a few, also see China as a serious threat. At the same time, like the EU, they rely on China as their most important trading partner. Ensuring the de-risking of the relationship, rather than opting for total disengagement, has become central to their efforts to calibrate their interactions with China. The EU is not alone in viewing China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival.

To the EU’s advantage, its Indo-Pacific strategy, with the words “strategy for cooperation” in its title, seeks constructive engagement with everyone in this vast region and is not directed against anyone. It could even include China if it chooses to engage and acts accordingly. Unsurprisingly, the EU has made the most progress with partners who share its views on the rules-based international order and support Ukraine. But the EU’s engagement with many other countries unwilling to take sides in the US-China rivalry is also valuable. Indeed, many of the countries in the Indo-Pacific are part of what is known, for lack of a better term, as the Global South. These include China and India, nations on the east coast of Africa, islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and the members of ASEAN. In the emerging multipolar world, engagement with them could help the EU find partners for its efforts to revitalise global multilateral cooperation. The success of these efforts is essential to ensure effective global governance. Without like-minded countries, the EU cannot achieve this.


Dr Reinhold Brender is a Senior Associate Fellow in the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont Institute since November 2023. He is a former EU official with extensive experience in EU external relations, covering the European Neighbourhood (East and South), transatlantic relations and the Indo-Pacific region. 

(Photo credit:  Venti Views, Unsplash)