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Asia-Europe meet: Is the EU gaining ground in Indo-Pacific?

Priyanka Shankar Brussels
November 29, 2021

At the 13th Asia-Europe meeting, leaders of the European Union renewed their commitments to support Asia. Experts say the EU needs to understand the expectations of its Asian partners to gain more influence.

Officials are seen on screen during an online opening session of the Asia-Europe Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
European and Asian leaders agreed to cooperate to revive their economies and improve supply chains Image: picture alliance/Xinhua News Agency

European leaders are renewing calls to strengthen diplomatic relations with Indo-Pacific countries amid geopolitical challenges posed by China and changes to trans-Atlantic relations brought on during the Trump era. 

At last week's 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), hosted by Cambodia, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, stressed that "Asia matters to Europe."

During the two-day virtual conference, leaders from the European Union and Asia agreed to cooperate to revive their economies in the pandemic era, improve supply chains, promote digitalization and work towards achieving low-carbon and inclusive societies.  

European Council President Charles Michel also signaled the importance of abiding by the EU's Indo-Pacific strategy, which outlines the bloc's interest in enhancing military cooperation, trade, health, infrastructure and environmental cooperation in the region.

"We have decided to reinforce our strategic focus and actions with the region, and our new EU Strategy for Cooperation with the Indo-Pacific sends a strong signal," he said in a statement, after the ASEM meeting.  

Garima Mohan, a fellow at the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund, welcomed the statement. "There has been a global shift in foreign relations where Western powers are focusing on the Indo-Pacific region," Mohan told DW. "It is panning out into a great power competition with respect to who has the most influence in the region." 

"With respect to the EU, what is different now is not so much the footprint of the bloc in the Indo-Pacific but an understanding that the EU needs to view this region more strategically than it has in the past," she added.

Why the renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific?

The Indo-Pacific region hasn't always been an area of interest for the EU.

"Two years ago, EU leaders wouldn't even use the term Indo-Pacific because it was seen as 'anti-China' and it still is seen in that manner by some EU countries who depend on China's market for economic growth. But the Indo-Pacific is here to stay," Frederick Kliem, a research fellow and lecturer at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told DW. 

"Interest in the region really started during US President Barack Obama's second term, when America changed its strategic priorities by focusing on the Indo-Pacific because of geopolitical tensions with China. This made the EU realize that the US, one of its strongest allies, would not prioritize the EU's 'Russia problem,'" said Kliem.

"And then something happens in international relations, something we observe all the time. If you need someone for your own security protection, you will show that country that you're willing to step up to some extent elsewhere. So this led to the EU's Indo-Pacific awakening," he added.  

But according to a recent European Council on Foreign Relations survey, some EU member states are taking an economic approach to the region rather than a strategic one, in order to assert neutrality and not choose between the US and China. 

As China's influence grows around the world, the US and countries like India, Japan and Australia are increasingly seeing China as a security threat. 

But addressing China's influence has been challenging for the EU because it is also the bloc's biggest trading partner. 

Does Europe see China as a threat to security?

Kliem believes European countries are more concerned with threats from Russia than China. 

"China is not a security problem for Europe. Europeans are concerned about Russia," said Kliem. "So if this is the case, why would you risk your important economic relationships with China by putting a lot of money into military and defense in far-flung areas in the Indo-Pacific?"

However, Mohan of the German Marshall Fund thinks the EU should not stay neutral on China.

"What I found interesting in the Indo-Pacific strategy is the language that offers a multi-faceted approach towards China. The EU says that it will cooperate with China for economic purposes but when there are differences in fundamental values, the EU will push back," said Mohan.

"When tensions are high, you cannot stay neutral," she said. "In a way, that neutrality is also taking a position."  

Meanwhile, Kliem believes that the EU needs to revamp its approach to the Indo-Pacific by better understanding the expectations of its partners in the region. 

"Where the EU's influence is already very strong and where it can continue to make a difference in the region is in capacity building to ensure maritime security. Maritime domain awareness is a real issue in Southeast Asia, where countries are apprehensive about China's presence. This is where the EU can step up to help countries maintain security in the South China Sea and also tackle issues like piracy," he said.

Moreover, at the recent ASEM meeting, the EU pledged to uphold democracy and the rule of law in the region. 

"This is a strategy that aligns with the EU's values. One of the ways it implements it is by agreeing to invest in projects, provided certain human rights and labor standards are met," said Kliem.

He added that several Asian countries are dependent on Chinese investment and that the EU's interest in the region could offer those countries an alternative to funding from China. 

"So in this manner, the EU can continue making a difference in the region and counter China and other countries in non-military ways."

Edited by: Leah Carter