The Implications of the French, German and Dutch Indo-Pacific Strategies for the EU's Asia Policy
In November 2020, the Netherlands became the third European country to issue an Indo-Pacific strategy, falling in behind France (May 2018) and Germany (September 2020). The Dutch initiative exemplifies the growing interest in this notion, which was first put forward by Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō in 2007, covering countries neighbouring the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Henceforward, other countries such as India, the United States or Australia developed their own Indo-Pacific visions, with some striking similarities. For instance, they all evince unwavering support to the promotion of the rule of law, economic prosperity, freedom of navigation, regional stability… The common denominator, however, mostly remains the rise of China.
Indo-Pacific strategies have often been depicted as counter-policies against Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aiming to contain its increasing assertiveness in the region. China regards most Indo-Pacific strategies as mere offshoots of former President Donald Trump’s China policy, as if the multiplication of such strategies heralded the shift to a new form of Cold War bipolarity. Setting aside the fact that Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy was first elaborated some nine years before Mr. Trump took office and six years before the BRI was announced to the world, analyzing European strategies in this respect provides a good means of understanding how the idea of a renewed bipolarity is both simplistic and outdated. The rise of China is a geopolitical phenomenon with worldwide implications, which does not necessarily cleave the planet in half by allegedly reproducing the US-China competition at all levels.
European interest in the Indo-Pacific can be easily understood. The region represents half of the world’s population. 90% of global trade is conducted by sea and two thirds pass through the Indo-Pacific. It includes seven out of ten of the highest defense budgets in the world and eight out of nine nuclear-armed powers. Whether from an economic or strategic standpoint, the Indo-Pacific is quickly becoming the center of 21st century geopolitics. Although the EU remains focused on its neighbourhood policy, the COVID-19 crisis and China’s booming quest for hegemony have highlighted the need to rethink the EU’s strategic policy regarding this pivotal area (still referred to as “Asia-Pacific” in official European documents). By analyzing the French, German and Dutch strategies, this paper aims at discussing the possibility of a unified, European-wide Indo-Pacific strategy likely to be dovetailed with Ursula van der Leyden’s dream of a “geopolitical” turn in European affairs.
France’s Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific (May 2018): Sovereignty and regional rebalancing
The foundation of the French Indo-Pacific strategy is the defense of sovereignty, as evidenced by the report’s first sentence: “France is a nation of the Indo-Pacific.” This emphasis aims at recalling the often-overlooked fact that due to overseas territories (Mayotte, Réunion, Southern and Antarctic territories, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia), 1.6 million French citizens live in the Indo-Pacific, which accounts for nine out of eleven million square kilometers of the French exclusive economic zone (EEZ), making it the second largest in the world. For France, the Indo-Pacific therefore spans from Djibouti, hosting one of its military bases, to the French Polynesia.
France’s priority in the region is to defend and ensure the integrity of its sovereignty, as well as the protection of its nationals, its territories and its EEZ. This is the reason why this strategy comes under the Ministry of Armed Forces and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, contrary to Germany and the Netherlands. France’s approach to the Indo-Pacific heavily relies on its projection capacities and the preservation of regional stability, in order to safeguard its national interests and territories. However, only 7,000 military personnel are permanently stationed in the Indo-Pacific. Such scarce figures compared with other regional actors cannot but undermine France’s credibility as a meaningful actor in a militarizing region. Increasing its military presence could strengthen its position, but might at the same time fall into a classic security dilemma.
The cause for alarm, according to the Ministry of Armed Forces, lies in three strategic dynamics that currently shape the region and require France’s strong response. The China-US competition has a regional, structural effect that entails new alignments. The decline of multilateralism directly challenges principles such as cooperation or freedom of navigation due to the promotion of alternative frameworks. Local crises spill over into the whole region and, quite possibly, the world. The root of these dynamics is China’s expansion, which prompts a “shrinking of the geostrategic space” and allows the rapid propagation of crises.
This part of the French defense strategy is consistent with Emmanuel Macron’s identification of China as the driving force behind the Indo-Pacific’s shifting geopolitics. In his May 2018 Nouméa speech, the French President said that China ought to be a partner for France, but added that one should bear in mind that “China is building its hegemony step by step in this region. (…) If we do not get organized, this hegemony that we will be subjected to will eventually restrict our freedom and our opportunities.”
However, the French position on China is not as “trumpist” as it might seem. The goal of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is to formally acknowledge that Beijing’s “aggressive sanctuarization” comes at the expense of international law and freedom of navigation. For instance, although the International Court of Justice rebutted China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in 2016, Beijing still questions the Court’s decision and keeps turning islets into military sites or Chinese possessions. As a resident power of the Indo-Pacific, France bluntly opposes this strategy of fait accompli, hence the recent patrol of the nuclear attack submarine Émeraude in the South China Sea, presented by the French Minister Florence Parly as a way of reaffirming freedom of navigation and the prevalence of international law. The defense of the region’s sea lanes of communications (SLOCs) is indeed of vital interest to both France and the EU, since 50% of the EU’s maritime trade crosses the South China Sea. Maritime security is therefore one of France’s foremost priorities.
Nevertheless, France’s desire to respond strongly to Chinese encroachments does not necessarily imply antagonizing Beijing and siding with the United States. The promotion of an “inclusive” multilateralism in the region, starting with the Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis and then enlarging with the United States, India, Australia, Japan… is less rooted in an obedience to American and Quad policy than in France’s balancing strategy. Building partnerships with those affected by China’s aggressive expansion is construed as a way of rebalancing the region’s strategic environment and avoiding glaring asymmetries, be they economic or military. Yet it does not amount to rejecting China lock, stock and barrel, since France merely wants to promote a multilateral management of the commons (freedom of navigation, action against climate change and nuclear proliferation or terrorism…) that cannot be done without China.
France is thus far from blindly siding with the United States in its Indo-Pacific strategy. Much like its stormy history with NATO, Paris wishes to remain independent: “France intends to carry out an autonomous and sovereign action from its territories, while actively contributing to multilateral efforts in the commons.” Becoming a puissance d’équilibre therefore enables France to cooperate with China when necessary and to face it when its interests are at stake. The latter is all the more efficient as France broadens its cooperation with its partners and other middle states in the region, while distancing itself slightly from Washington’s involvement and promoting greater European commitment. Yet President Biden’s calls for enhanced cooperation with EU countries in the region will presumably be well-received in Paris, as the future joint military exercise with Japan and the United States planned for May 2021 suggests.
Germany’s Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific Region (September 2020): The rejection of hegemony and bipolarity
Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy largely results from economic considerations. In 2019, the whole region represented 20% of its foreign trade, China being its most important partner with a volume of trade of almost €200 billion. Beijing’s weight in German economy, along with the conclusions drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic (which pointed at the opacity of the Chinese crisis management as well as the risks of an outgrown dependency on China for supply chains), explain Germany’s tentative position regarding China.
Firstly, as Carnegie’s senior fellow Frédéric Grare put it, the use of the term “guidelines” instead of “strategy” shows that Berlin does not seek to adopt a confrontational attitude towards China, opting for a more cautious approach. The German guidelines reject both unipolarity and bipolarity, which would undermine the possibility of enhancing and diversifying partnerships in the region. In other words, Berlin does not want to be pitted against China, nor does it want to rely excessively on the United States, reflecting Berlin’s distrust of the Trump administration. Although President Biden is more likely to gain Germany’s support, the desire to avoid frictions with China might curb its alignment with Washington.
In order to avoid any exclusive siding, the German guidelines’ first principle is European action. The Federal Government clearly aims at laying the groundwork for a future comprehensive EU strategy, particularly in the areas of trade, investment and development. The German Presidency of the Council of the European Union (July-December 2020) has already implemented two major parts of the guidelines. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China was a longstanding objective due to the overriding importance of China in German investments (for instance, Volkswagen sells about 40% of its vehicles in China); and in December 2020, the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) became strategic partners. The latter was regarded as the pillar of Germany’s conception of multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific, inasmuch as it now binds 37 countries together, totaling 1.1 billion people and 23% of global GDP.
Indeed, the second principle of Germany’s guidelines is the need to strengthen multilateralism by avoiding taking sides, hence the importance of ASEAN (which neither China nor the United States are part of). Enhanced cooperation with this regional organization is regarded as the most efficient way of diversifying supply chains, tackling the environmental crisis and expanding security and defense cooperation (although the guidelines remain very vague in this respect). The maps that are provided by the report show no mention of military involvement or ongoing conflicts in the Indo-Pacific, thus highlighting the prevalence of these economic goals over hard power.
Therein lies, perhaps, the limits of Germany’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Its focus on the EU and economic partnerships deliberately plays on the EU’s strengths and is less confrontational than France’s defense prism. However, due to mounting tensions in the region, with such countries as Japan or Indonesia demanding European security involvement, consensus-building should not come at the expense of the strategic and security substance of the notion of Indo-Pacific. That is why the elaboration of a European-wide strategy hand in hand with France, as indicated by the guidelines, could prove to be an efficient means of avoiding unipolarity and bipolarity in the region.
The Netherlands’ Indo-Pacific: A Guideline for Strengthening Dutch and EU Cooperation with Partners in Asia (November 2020): Advocating a European strategy
The Dutch guidelines claim to present a unique vision of the Indo-Pacific region, based on national analysis and interests but inherently aimed at framing a European vision. It is somehow a via media between the French and German strategies, also influenced by the United States. For instance, like Washington, it considers that the area stretches from Pakistan to the Pacific Islands, whereas France takes into account the West coast of Africa.
The main focus is the need for the EU and the Netherlands to intensify and diversify trade relationships with all countries in the region, including the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). The Dutch therefore concur with the French regarding this particular part of the Pacific Ocean, which currently undergoes great competition between China and Australia in the field of economic and security agreements. According to the guidelines, a European approach to the Indo-Pacific should go even further than trade and investment, by identifying mutually shared interests in the region.
Indeed, the Dutch also take stock of the consequences of the US-China competition, which leaves neighbouring countries with increasingly limited leeway to make sovereign choices. Hence a rather tough diplomatic language on the part of the Netherlands, calling upon the EU to avoid shying away from realpolitik and prevent the region from becoming a “plaything” for great powers. That is the reason why the guidelines put heavy emphasis on the South China Sea’s militarization and growing tensions due to China’s claims and hybrid strategy. The Netherlands wants the EU to focus on regional de-escalation and to speak out more strongly on such developments, which violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Due to the region’s vital economic importance for the EU and the Netherlands (in 2019, 22.5% of Dutch imports came from Asia, mostly China), the guidelines insist that although the South China Sea might seem distant, any conflict in the region would have massive repercussions on European and Dutch prosperity and security.
The Dutch guidelines thus express stronger language than Germany’s, by pointing at the pivotal bond between this region and the EU, which therefore must take strong action to protect its interests. They do not present, however, France’s frankness and risk of antagonizing China, by scarcely naming it. These guidelines highlight the need for European, collective action under a proper strategy that encompasses both economic and security challenges. In this regard, the Dutch suggest that the EU be given an advisory role in the ongoing negotiations between China and ASEAN countries about a Code of Conduct to foster de-escalation in the South China Sea.
Towards a fully-fledged European Indo-Pacific strategy?
These strategic visions of the Indo-Pacific make up three different approaches. While France views the region as a resident power facing potential sovereignty encroachments, eager to defend its interests through national, multilateral and European involvement, Germany aims at building consensus by crafting a policy that antagonizes neither China nor the United States; and the Netherlands, acknowledging the threatening effects of Chinese assertiveness in the region, urges the EU to devise a renewed, comprehensive strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
All three visions emphasize the need for coordinated, European action. Since Brexit, France remains the only member state whose naval forces are constantly present in the region, engaging in joint military drills with the United States, India, Australia… These sovereignty forces and military commands cannot be regarded as credible European involvement. The EU must therefore step up its presence in the region if it wants to be recognized as a valuable Indo-Pacific actor. It already benefits from various security partnerships (e.g. with Japan) and has plenty of elbow room to improve others (as the strategic partnership with ASEAN demonstrates). The German and Dutch guidelines present a less elaborated strategic prism than France’s, but highlight the EU’s strengths and assets, such as its regulatory authority or its economic ties with regional countries.
The combination of these three visions therefore paves the way for the identification of the main challenges in the region for the EU:
- increasing its naval presence by coordinating existing fleets in order to curtail any encroachment on freedom of navigation
- diversifying its economic and security partnerships with middle states seeking to avoid a US-China bipolarity
- becoming more vocal on unilateral actions that violate international law and the rules-based order, by dismissing, for instance, its “principled neutrality” in the South China Sea conflict.
The main hurdle, however, remains the need to build a common stance regarding China, which depicts European Indo-Pacific strategies as the evidence of a return to Atlanticism. Between European NATO members and the Central and Eastern European countries part of China’s “17+1” investment initiative, one can already expect deep divisions. Chinese investments in several EU member states as well as in the Western Balkans have already thwarted the possibility of a common European position, and have become a pivotal security issue. As security expert Eva Pejsova wrote, China’s BRI brings a taste of its foreign policy assertiveness, and as Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) control one tenth of Europe’s seaport capacity (with partial or full ownership in Greece, Italy, Spain and Belgium), a proactive, European approach to the Indo-Pacific is now a necessity and a matter of sovereignty.
The French, German and Dutch guidelines are yet another incentive for the elaboration of an actual European strategic policy, which too often seems to be limited to its close neighbourhood. One of the great lessons that can be drawn from the COVID-19 crisis is the evidence that regional geostrategic spaces know no more boundaries, especially in the Indo-Pacific, whether taking into account viral transmissions, supply chain disruptions or potential conflict spillovers. The European Union’s distance, once construed as a natural bulwark against the Indo-Pacific’s growing instability, is no longer relevant.
Nowadays, the United States foresees “extreme competition” with China. The Quad is stepping up its military drills and cooperation with non-member countries. ASEAN member states are struggling to draft a common agreement regarding the South China Sea. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) reinforces the region’s economic density, while potentially competing with Japan’s Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Every Indo-Pacific country seems to be forced into taking sides and devising a strategic policy in order to keep up with the ongoing regional competition. Economic and security stakes are too high for the European Union to remain distant or left behind, and greater European involvement, either through minilateral or multilateral means, could invalidate the divisive and harmful narrative of a Sino-American bipolarity.
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 The United States, China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Japan, South Korea.  The United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, North Korea.  https://www.defense.gouv.fr/dgris/action-internationale/enjeux-regionaux/la-strategie-de-defense-francaise-en-indopacifique2  https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2018/05/05/discours-du-president-de-la-republique-emmanuel-macron-sur-la-nouvelle-caledonie-a-noumea  Brustlein, C. (2013). « A l’ombre de la dissuasion : la sanctuarisation agressive », Les grands dossiers de diplomatie, IFRI.  https://www.eias.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/IPO-Briefing-Paper.pdf  The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, India, Australia and the United States, initiated in 2007 by Abe Shinzō within his broader Indo-Pacific vision.  https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/12/06/national/japan-france-us-military-drills/  https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/regionaleschwerpunkte/asien/german-government-policy-guidelines-indo-pacific/2380510  http://www.opex360.com/2020/09/03/berlin-durcit-le-ton-a-legard-de-pekin-et-parle-de-simpliquer-dans-la-securisation-des-routes-maritimes-en-asie/  https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/laenderinformationen/china-node/china/228916  https://ip-quarterly.com/en/germanys-new-approach-indo-pacific  https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/Germany-walks-tightrope-between-China-and-rest-of-Indo-Pacific  https://allemagneenfrance.diplo.de/fr-fr/actualites-nouvelles-d-allemagne/02-Europe/-/2422766  https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/publicaties/2020/11/13/indo-pacific-een-leidraad-voor-versterking-van-de-nederlandse-en-eu-samenwerking-met-partners-in-azie  This format was founded in 2012 in Budapest in order to promote China’s BRI with 12 Member States (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia) and Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.  https://www.iss.europa.eu/sites/default/files/EUISSFiles/Brief%203%20The%20Indo-Pacific_0.pdf