• Timothée Albessard

The main challenges for the European Union’s “strategic autonomy” endeavour in the Indo-Pacific

Following the French, German and Dutch guidelines, the Council of the European Union (EU) has released its Conclusions on an EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific last April[1]. This document comes amid a growing sense that the EU should recalibrate its ties with the world’s most populous, dynamic, and security-tense region. Although the EU’s immediate neighborhood is still its foreign policy priority, the Indo-Pacific clearly could no longer remain beyond the scope of consistent, coordinated European policy.

Photo by kilarov zaneit on Unsplash

Two main arguments have spurred the Council into devising these conclusions, which call for the elaboration of a fully-fledged Indo-Pacific strategy by September 2021. From an economic standpoint, the Indo-Pacific region (spanning from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island States) comprises 60% of the world’s population. 90% of global trade is conducted by sea; two-third of which passes through the Indo-Pacific, while more than one-third of European exports go to the region[2]. The Union’s prosperity and economic security therefore substantially depend on the Indo-Pacific and the stability of its supply chains. From a security standpoint, the EU has acknowledged the “intense geopolitical competition” in hand, which directly threatens the EU’s interests. Maritime security, especially in sea lanes of communication, is the core of this policy.

The conjunction of economic and security foci answers the EU’s will to enhance its “strategic autonomy”. This much-debated concept emphasizes the need for Brussels to strengthen its self-reliance against external shocks and pressures, which requires being able to lead a sovereign foreign and defense policy. In the Indo-Pacific, as I already argued in a previous paper[3], such a position means that the EU must avoid being entrapped into a binary choice between China and the United States, based on the woefully-spread and historically-aberrant premise that a new Cold War would be at stake.

Focusing on the EU’s goal to achieve such strategic autonomy, this article highlights the three main challenges that the EU must successfully take up if it wishes to pay more than lip service to its involvement in the Indo-Pacific and the establishment of its autonomy, which cannot spare itself active engagement in the region.

The need to devise a new economic paradigm

Due to the EU’s economic power and interests in the Indo-Pacific, the Council’s Conclusions lay heavy emphasis on the economic dimension of the Union’s involvement in the region. Stating that the pandemic has dramatically highlighted the weakness of its supply chains (regarding health products or raw materials for instance), the first goal is to protect these supply chains by diversifying the EU’s partners and producers in order to lessen any risk of paralysis. Brussels “will aim to conclude free trade agreements with Australia, Indonesia and New Zealand and take further steps towards the Comprehensive Agreement with China.” (p.7) In other words, new economic agreements with like-minded partners and the establishment of a long-sought frame with China are regarded as a means of strengthening the EU’s trade position in the Indo-Pacific.

This vision hardly comes without major contradictions. It manages to oust the debate on catching up with and renewing the EU’s industrial know-how and capabilities, by having the term diversification supersede a selective relocation. Diversifying supply chains in the region is not tantamount to fully securing them due to lingering security concerns in maritime lanes of communication. Moreover, reaffirming the urge to complete the Agreement (CAI) with China is incompatible with the desire to protect the EU’s supply chains. China is its second-biggest economic partner and wields considerable clout over some of the EU’s most strategic sectors. For instance, 98% of the EU’s rare-earth elements supply (such as lithium or scandium) come from China[4], which creates an overdependence on its “systemic rival” to acquire raw materials required for the production of such daily commodities as phone batteries, hybrid cars or energy-saving light bulbs.

Besides other critical flaws, the CAI would increase such dependence and give powerful leverage to China in case of tensions. Beijing often uses its privileged economic ties with other countries to pressure them into yielding major political concessions. In 2010, after Tokyo intercepted a Chinese ship near the disputed Senkaku Islands, China abruptly stopped its rare-earth elements exports to Japan. Palau, one of the 15 countries that maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, underwent an sudden drop in the important influx of Chinese tourists from 2018 onwards in order to pressure its leaders into cutting ties with Taipei[5]. In addition to the current sanctions against Australia, notably for withdrawing from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), all these examples should prod the EU to reconsider its economic dependence on China. Although Beijing frequently denounces American economic sanctions, it constantly uses the same tools to obtain massive political gains[6]. Putting forward the CAI as a means of protecting supply chains therefore goes against the grain of the EU’s potential strategic autonomy, by further deepening its reliance on China.

The currently prevailing economic paradigm, based on free trade agreements so as to improve the EU’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific, also weakens the EU’s credibility about its greatest strengths: high standards and human rights. Still about the CAI, lukewarm dispositions on forced labor see the EU acknowledge that China pledges to make “sustained and continuous efforts” to ratify relevant international conventions, but set no timeframe, no appeal, no sanction and no enforcement mechanism[7]. Amid growing awareness of the Uighur people’s persecutions in Xinjiang, such clauses hardly align with the EU’s vocal defense of human rights all around the world.

This particular example shows that the current free-market paradigm that still prevails in the EU’s foreign policy undermines its credibility as the defender of human rights and liberal values. This is why member States willing to increase European influence in the Indo-Pacific must take into account this notion of exemplarity. Recent disclosures of French oil behemoth Total’s dubious financial schemes in Myanmar exemplify such contradictions. According to these investigations, the company has been financing the military junta since 1994 through offshore accounts, while refusing to stop paying taxes since February to the seditious government for alleged “humanitarian reasons”, in spite of many demands from members of civil society that oppose the military coup[8]. The French government has therefore asked Total to clarify its position on the matter. Witnessing a major European company continuing to fund one of the bloodiest coups in recent South-Asian history is a massive blow to the credibility of the values the EU tries to spread in the region.

against the logic of absolute free-market and so-called non-interference in private economic interests is therefore yet another step of the paradigmatic shift the EU must endeavor, if it wishes to uphold its values in the region and become a notable stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific. A consistent, singular voice in economic issues and human rights would enable the EU to lay the foundation stone of the strategic autonomy it craves for, including through incentivisation of member States and their major companies. It would be ill-advised for the EU to set these goals aside, as negotiations for a trade agreement with New Delhi have resumed on May 8th amid the growing anti-Muslim persecutions in India[9] -all the more as China could legitimately denounce such double standards on the part of the EU.

The need to increase the EU’s concrete involvement

The EU’s position in the Indo-Pacific largely suffers from the constraints of history and geography, with France being, since Brexit, the only member State with a resident status in the region. This initial obstacle considerably hampers the EU’s projection capabilities. However, two means could be envisaged to compensate for this lack of presence.

Firstly, the EU’s defense of international law and rules-based world order has become increasingly vocal in the last two years, showing a growing understanding of what regional actors expect from the EU. Following the Philippines’ protests to China over its remaining boats around disputed reefs, on April 24th, the EU’s spokesperson had blamed “the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef”, which “endanger peace and stability in the region”[10]. This unusually tough message urged all parties to abide by the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) 2016 ruling, which rejected most Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing still rejects the Court’s judgement, and foregrounds a hypothetical traditional presence in the region.

China’s behaviour is somewhat akin to Russia’s in Crimea, namely the promotion of historical rights which prevail over international law, thus significantly and systematically undermine its efficiency[11]. Such vocal interventions by the EU help reassert the values and foundations of international law (in this case, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified by China) in order to oppose these policies of fait accompli. Upholding these principles is at the core of the EU’s diplomatic identity and should be furthered, for instance, by reconsidering Brussels’ “principled neutrality” on the South China Sea territorial disputes (for how could such neutrality be reconciled with the EU’s support of UNCLOS and the ICJ?).

In order to improve the EU’s involvement in the region, being more vocal is the first step, and allocating more financial means to this task is the second. The Council Conclusions present highly ambitious goals which should be fostered and acknowledged, however they do not foreshadow the will to increase the budget in question. The issue of connectivity and infrastructures epitomizes this gap. The 2018 Connecting Europe and Asia strategy aimed at pushing for an alternative approach to China’s BRI by enhancing sustainability and avoiding debt traps. The Council Conclusions read: “Strategic communication needs to be undertaken to improve the visibility of the EU’s engagement.” (p. 9)

This statement is, somehow, the tail wagging the dog. The EU’s connectivity project’s lack of visibility does not so much stem from inadequate public relations as it does from an egregious lack of financial means. “The European Union spent 8 billion euros in Asia on connectivity projects between 2014 and 2020. These resources remain far below the estimated 1.3 trillion euros needed each year to answer the demand for infrastructure across the Asia-Pacific region”[12] and much below China’s own investments (the China-Pakistan economic corridor’s budget alone amounts to 60 billion dollars[13]). Putting forward an alternative path to China’s BRI for Indo-Pacific countries is a valuable project, which Japan has also taken up. But hoping it might work out without a funding proportionate to this grand ambition is wishful thinking, hence the need to gather greater financial resources if the EU truly desires to see this project come to fruition (which it should).

Eventually, being more vocal and more funded must bring about more European presence in the region. The Council Conclusions acknowledge the importance of securing major sea lanes of communication, which are currently threatened by piracy and Chinese grey-zone tactics, especially in the South China Sea. The document’s proposition to extend maritime domain awareness operations, with the CRIMARIO II project, lays the ground for active reconnaissance and information-gathering in these maritime areas, along with partners such as the Republic of Korea and Japan. It also suggests improving cooperation between member states to increase naval presence in the region.

This is a seminal point that should be highly encouraged. The remaining European navies have already experienced their inter-operational capabilities in such missions as EUNAVFOR Atalanta, fighting against piracy off the Somalian coast. New deployments could be envisaged, in the wake of France’s “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea in February 2021[14]. This operation aimed at reaffirming the prevalence of international law and freedom of navigation in spite of ongoing territorial disputes. Since 50% of the EU’s maritime trade crosses the South China Sea[15], maritime security and such operations defending access to the region’s sea lanes of communications is of vital importance for the EU, and should be enforced by member States and their partners in the Indo-Pacific. Such policy would be welcomed by many stakeholders like Japan or India, which have recently increased maritime exercises with France, the United States or the United Kingdom.

The need to build a unified stance on China

Indo-Pacific strategies, since Abe Shinzo’s first contribution in 2007, aim to respond to the geopolitically game-changing rise of China. Contrary to the Cold War’s containment strategies against the USSR, this issue should not be construed in terms of separate and opposed blocs, which would require the EU to systematically align on Washington’s positions and therefore constrain its strategic autonomy. Quite the contrary, the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, in the wake of the French and Dutch guidelines, should define clear areas of cooperation with China (regarding the fight against climate change, for instance) as well as draw clear red lines in human rights and maritime security matters.

However, such a policy inevitably requires a unified stance on China at the European level, which is yet to be achieved. Member States are already divided in the field of economic investments, as exemplified by the “17+1” format[16] and recent Chinese vaccine supplies to Hungary, in spite of the European Medicines Agency’s condemnations due to the lack of certainty about their efficiency[17]. Member States are entitled to purchase vaccines from any suppliers, but such divisions bespeak a lack of common strategic culture and interests within the EU. Lithuania’s recent decision to pull out of the “17+1” format, calling for a “more uniting and therefore much more efficient 27+1”, exemplifies the existence of internal European demand for more unity and cooperation[18]

Furthermore, the EU’s core institutions also lack a common position about Beijing. The Council Conclusions and the European Commission advocate “further steps towards the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China” (p. 7), while Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) were growingly opposed to its ratification due to China’s human rights abuse in Xinjiang and Beijing’s sanctions targeting MEPs who advocated a tougher European stance on this issue[19]; evidenced by the Parliament’s decision to freeze the deal’s ratification[20]. The already-existing rift between the EU’s executive and legislative branches is further deepened by this lack of common stance on China, which damages the EU’s credibility by shedding light upon the gap between economic interests and the defense of human rights, as well as among reactions to sanctions against some of its elected representatives.

Devising this common stance would be the final key-element for a proper European Indo-Pacific strategy, inasmuch as it would enable the EU to define areas of mutually-beneficial cooperation and areas of non-negotiable toughness with China in all conscience, without having to align with the United States. One of its most renowned presidents, Abraham Lincoln, once said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”; this should be the motto and the prerequisite of the EU’s quest for strategic autonomy.

Conclusion: unity and sovereignty at the heart of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy

The Council Conclusions are a valuable milestone for the establishment of a unified European Indo-Pacific strategy, in the wake of France’s, Germany’s and the Netherlands’ intellectual contributions. They show undoubtable awareness of the pivotal geopolitical competition in the region, with inevitable economic spillovers and security repercussions for the whole of the European Union. Pending the elaboration of a proper strategy in September 2021, the need to rethink the nature and the extent of the EU’s economic involvement; to increase its financial means and concrete presence in the region; and to build a unified stance regarding China should come under serious discussion by relevant European authorities –along with national debates among member States and their citizens.

Strategic autonomy seems out of reach if these particular issues were to remain undealt with. Indeed, it is notionally linked with the concept of sovereignty. Detractors of the EU and supranational entities alike understand sovereignty in an absolute, normative fashion stemming from Bodin’s and Hobbes’s theories, and believe that such structures cannot but encroach on a government’s independence and autonomy. These positions fail to take into account Locke’s contributions about the positive nature of sovereignty, which essentially resides in the ability to deliver the tasks and services that the executive and the legislative powers have been chosen for. Mario Draghi’s calls for this conception of sovereignty and European unity are still more relevant and topical than ever[21]. Well implemented, they would enable the EU to avoid falling into the trap of a so-called Sino-American bipolarity. In general terms and regarding its Indo-Pacific strategy, the EU’s sovereignty, and consequently its strategic autonomy, are not doomed to fail because of its semi-supranational, semi-intergovernmental approach. They are doomed to fail if the Union does not build its ability to reach the ambitious goals it has set itself to achieve, for want of appropriate financial means and political cohesion.


Albessard, T. (March 20, 2021), “The Implications of the French, German and Dutch Indo-Pacific Strategies for the European Union’s Asia Policy”, Institute for a Greater Europe, https://www.institutegreatereurope.com/single-post/the-implications-of-the-french-german-and-dutch-indo-pac