• Timothée Albessard

The EU’s Indo-Pac. strategy, the French rotating presidency and the transatlantic security conundrum

Credit photo: https://www.ussc.edu.au/events/indo-pacific-strategic-futures-next-generation-leaders-workshop?fbclid=IwAR14f9ZngT-3qHZWx9SXkbRA7adp9-hhsJYQvq4f7RLQRyDR5VLnVoVe7b8

After the French, German and Dutch contributions and the Council of the European Union (EU) conclusions, the EU has eventually released its Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The publication timing could not have been worse, since the diplomatic rift between France, Australia and the United States caused by the unexpected AUKUS partnership took centre stage. Nevertheless, in spite of its lasting consequences, this latest unilateral move by the Biden Administration in the wake of its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan tends to prove France’s intuitions right in assuming that the EU must develop its own diplomatic model and its singular take on Indo-Pacific geopolitics. The EU has a major role to play in proving wrong those who claim the 21st century will be that of a bipolar, Sino-American Cold War, and the elaboration of its own Indo-Pacific strategy is a pivotal watershed in this respect.

An inclusive and comprehensive European Indo-Pacific strategy

The EU advocates a holistic approach to the Indo-Pacific insofar as it now regards the region as “a key player in shaping the international order and in addressing global challenges.”[1] Local crises could quite possibly spill over into the rest of the world due to the region’s economic and military dynamism, which prompts a shrinking of the geostrategic space and allows the rapid propagation of crises, as evidenced by the Covid-19 pandemic. The EU is willing to undertake a principled engagement hinged around three main pillars, aiming to uphold the rules-based international order: economic ties, environmental goals and defence policy.

From an economic standpoint, the EU and the Indo-Pacific are highly interdependent, this region being the second largest destination of EU exports and the home to four of the EU’s ten biggest trading partners[2]. These deep economic ties require the EU to strengthen the resilience of its supply and value chains in the region, mostly by extending its partnerships and free-trade agreements (negotiations with India have resumed in May, for instance) and by ensuring the safety of such vital waterways as the Straits of Malacca or the South China Sea. Building digital partnerships and pursuing its connectivity strategy for key infrastructures are also part of this broader economic approach, which ultimately aims at ensuring the development of safe standards for emergent technologies and investment practices. Enhancing and furthering the EU’s economic relations in the Indo-Pacific is yet another way of implementing its normative agenda, in keeping with its principled approach and in cooperation with its regional partners.

It is also aimed at achieving its environmental goals, through the conclusion of Green Alliances with countries like Japan. Since the Indo-Pacific region represents 57% of global carbon dioxide emissions and is currently undergoing massive marine biodiversity destruction[3], environmental issues should be at the heart of the EU’s actions in the wake of the new framework devised by the European Green Deal.

The third major pillar of the EU’s strategy is security and defence, although it comes last in the list of the document’s seven priorities. Following its antipiracy operations, the EU wishes to expand its coordinated maritime presence (CMP) in the Indo-Pacific in order to establish maritime areas of interest in the region. The European Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) already provides cooperation frameworks for the EU’s like-minded partners who would be willing to join these operations, such as Australia, New Zealand or the Republic of Korea.

The chief objective of this policy is to secure the major sea lanes of communication in order to protect its trade interests and uphold the principle of freedom of navigation. Due to the region’s intense competition and significant military build-up (the document only specifies “including by China”, p. 2), the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea have become major hotspots and areas of contention, which Beijing is currently trying to sanctuarize in spite of international law. One of the major stakes for the EU is to defend such freedom and advocate the proper implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), although such endeavours might prompt tensions with China. Beijing’s refusal to allow the German frigate “Bayern” to conduct a planned stopover in Shanghai, last September[4], while it was undertaking a broader “freedom of navigation operation” in the Indo-Pacific, clearly shows a perception gap between China and the EU on that matter.

The strategic dilemmas and opportunities raised by the EU/NATO/US/China geopolitical square

When it comes to the formulation of an Indo-Pacific strategy, China is always the largest elephant in the room. The way the EU characterizes Beijing has notably changed since March 2019 and the triptych “cooperation partner” / “economic competitor” / “systemic rival”[5]. The latest document now reads: “The EU will also pursue its multifaceted engagement with China, engaging bilaterally to promote solutions to common challenges, cooperating on issues of common interest and encouraging China to play its part in a peaceful and thriving Indo-Pacific region. At the same time, and working with international partners who share similar concerns, the EU will continue to protect its essential interests and promote its values while pushing back where fundamental disagreements exist with China, such as on human rights.” (p.2)

Although the EU still acknowledges the global governance and security challenge that China represents for the world, its language has softened in order to make room for cooperation with Beijing whenever deemed possible and desirable. The fight against climate change certainly qualifies, since China is the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitting country[6].

However, this particular European approach fundamentally differs from the radical perspective adopted by the United States, in the wake of the Trump Administration which publicly designated China as a systemic rival and almost an inevitable foe. The recently announced AUKUS defence partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia underlines how the United States hardly takes into account European countries in its engagement versus China, as evidenced by the diplomatic crisis caused by this event with France. Washington’s rationale aims at building separate blocs and is based on systemic confrontation with Beijing, which it is trying to muster all its allies into.

This rationale is also the linchpin of Washington’s new strategic leitmotif. The notion of “integrated deterrence” is likely to underpin the next Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as well as the National Defence Strategy (NDS) and American contributions to NATO’s future strategic concept. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin defines this notion as “using every military and non-military tool in our toolbox, in lock-step with our allies and partners. Integrated deterrence is about using existing capabilities, and building new ones, and deploying them all in new and networked ways… all tailored to a region’s security landscape, and in growing partnership with our friends.”[7] The United States’ prospective integrated deterrence putatively hinges around the restoration of its alliances, weaving a dense network of like-minded partners in order to strengthen its overall deterrence.

However, in spite of the Biden Administration’s comments and promotion of multilateralism, this new concept is far from ideal news for European security. Firstly, this form of deterrence is based on technological competition and full-spectrum deterrence, which implies tremendous investments in artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and cyber capacities. Nuclear deterrence clearly loses the central seat it had occupied since the Eisenhower presidency, which might reduce some allies’ confidence in the strength of American deterrence guarantees. Moreover, such cross-domain deterrence is blatantly directed at China, which has been developing a similar strategy, based on hybrid capacities and “unrestricted warfare”, since the beginning of the 2000s. American multilateralism regarding its own deterrence would thus mean diverting its allies’ security priorities towards China, rather than reinforce and extend deterrence through proper dialogue.

This strategy already has a direct impact on the evolution of Europe’s security architecture, since the United States is pressuring NATO into addressing this new challenge[8]. These efforts create a powerful dilemma for many European Member-States who do not wish to align with the United States. For instance, France has called upon NATO to readjust its focus on its original tasks and missions, namely ensuring collective defence in the transatlantic region which China is not geographically part of. Germany has added that Russia remains the Alliance’s historical and biggest threat, in the wake of the illegal annexation of Crimea and the Donbass conflict.

Due to their economic ties with China and America’s proclivity for unilateral action, as evidenced by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, many European States find themselves reluctant to fully abide by any strategic shift decided in Washington, all the more as the “pivot to Asia” has plainly become the Biden Administration’s top priority. This change of geographic focus raises concerns in some European capitals (quite notably in the Baltic States), which fear it might lead the United States to scale down its commitment to help defend European borders against Russia.

The diplomatic and security challenges awaiting the French rotating presidency

Such profound disagreements as to the fundamental goals of NATO will directly impact the negotiations leading to the elaboration of the Alliance’s new strategic concept next summer. Another major factor that cannot go overlooked is the fact that France will hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from the 1st of January 2022 for six months onwards. Paris is the most prominent advocate of the EU’s strategic autonomy, namely its ability to make sovereign and independent decisions regarding its foreign policy priority and actions. The singular Indo-Pacific strategy released by the EU as well as the Strategic Compass it will seek to adopt during the French presidency, providing the Union with its first defence white paper, are valuable steps forward towards fulfilling this seminal objective.

Nonetheless, France will have to carefully overcome substantial hurdles and avoid diplomatic pitfalls. Although Paris received support from Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell after the submarine spat[9] most European partners remained rather silent about it. What could be construed as an egregious lack of solidarity is in fact cautious thinking for two reasons.

Firstly, many EU Member States did not want to see trade negotiations with Australia end abruptly by being caught up in France’s bilateral quarrels. Secondly, it is also a matter of balance and trust. Thanks to its overseas territories, France is the only European country that also happens to be a resident power of the Indo-Pacific. Many are therefore worried that this strategy, which formalises the geopolitical dynamic that was initiated by France’s release of its own Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, would be tantamount to serving France’s exclusive interests with no foreseeable advantage for the rest of the Union. Moreover, France’s heated history with NATO often makes its promotion of European strategic autonomy wrongfully look like an attempt to replace the United States as the continent’s biggest security provider.

Defence policy stakes are therefore high for France’s rotating presidency. Paris will have to explain how the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the AUKUS pact confirm that China has become Washington’s top priority, and that its attempts to coalesce its European allies against Beijing through NATO run counter to the EU’s sovereignty and interests. Linking the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy with the Strategic Compass and Europe’s very own security agenda could thus be a critical move closer to strategic autonomy. However, France must avoid giving the impression that it champions this policy in order to steer the EU away from NATO and the United States, all the more as President Macron’s statement about the Alliance’s brain death and recent bilateral feuds have prompted heated reactions on all sides[10].

This Indo-Pacific strategy enables the EU to take a singular stance on China and reject the growing calls for a Sino-American bipolarity. Enforcing the EU’s strategic autonomy would therefore further legitimize its role as a global actor and help tackle the issues raised by the rise of China, through both cooperation and firmness when required. The elaboration of an idiosyncratic European geopolitical vision and defence policy is not incompatible with NATO, since strengthening the EU cannot but strengthen the Alliance as well – which, as a matter of fact, is something the United States has been requesting for decades. The EU is increasingly waking up from its strategic sleep, and sorting out the United States/NATO/China tangle will prove to be its major challenge for the first half of 2022.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/jointcommunication_indo_pacific_en.pdf, p. 1. [2] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/jointcommunication_indo_pacific_en.pdf, p. 2 [3] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/jointcommunication_indo_pacific_en.pdf, p. 2. [4] https://www.dw.com/en/china-denies-port-visit-by-german-warship/a-59190643 [5] https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/communication-eu-china-a-strategic-outlook.pdf [6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57483492 [7]https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2711025/secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-participates-in-fullerton-lecture-serie/ [8] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/nato-welcomes-biden-pivotal-post-trump-summit-2021-06-14/ [9] https://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20210921-france-gets-little-eu-support-over-australia-submarine-disaster-us-nato [10] https://www.france24.com/en/20191127-nato-brain-dead-macron-s-disruptive-style-rattles-europe


BBC News (14/10/2021). “Why China’s climate policy matters to us all.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-57483492

Deutsche Welle (15/09/2021). “China denies port visit by German warship.” https://www.dw.com/en/china-denies-port-visit-by-german-warship/a-59190643

European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (12/03/2019). Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council. EU-China: A Strategic Outlook. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/communication-eu-china-a-strategic-outlook.pdf

European Commission, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (16/09/2021). Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council. The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/jointcommunication_indo_pacific_en.pdf

Reuters (14/06/2021). “NATO adopts tough line on China at Biden’s debut summit with alliance.” https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/nato-welcomes-biden-pivotal-post-trump-summit-2021-06-14/

France 24 (27/11/2019). “NATO brain dead? Macron’s disruptive style rattles Europe.”