Image: Xinhua (Photo by Pang Xinglei)


During his visit last week to Europe, President Joe Biden sought greater alignment between the United States and its European allies on policy toward China and the Indo-Pacific. In some respects, he was successful. NATO identified China as presenting “systemic challenges,” and the European Union agreed to work with the United States toward a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” But Europeans have been thinking strategically about the region for some time now. FranceGermany and the Netherlands have adopted Indo-Pacific strategies, while the United Kingdom has outlined the pillars of its “Indo-Pacific tilt” in its integrated review. Even the European Union has signaled its strategic shift to the region by issuing a preliminary strategy, which will be formally adopted in September of this year.

Even though European countries are not fully aligned with America’s approach of competition with China across policy fields, for Europe’s partners, including the United States and those in the region, this is still an encouraging sign. European countries have, in the past few decades, largely limited their interest in the Asia-Pacific to economic ties, focusing predominately on China. But times are changing. China is still in focus, but for altogether different reasons. While most European leaders speak of China-related challenges in hushed terms, it is obvious that it is the cause of their concerns over Indo-Pacific stability. European countries now seek to “diversify” their partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, doubling down on countries like India and Japan. There are clear points of convergence between Europe’s various approaches to the region — from geographic scope to policy principles these countries seek to promote and partners they want to work with.

The first hurdle has been cleared: European policymakers have begun to see China in a new light and have realized that developments in the Indo-Pacific will impact Europe. But Europe should now move beyond expressions of interest in the Indo-Pacific. Resources and capabilities are limited and unevenly spread. How coordination at the E.U. level and with the United Kingdom will occur remains unclear. Infrastructure initiatives like the E.U.-Asia connectivity strategy, through which Europe can make a real contribution to the Indo-Pacific, have languished too long in the corridors of Brussels and need funding now. While Europe has reinvigorated its partnerships with India, Japan, and Australia, it is still behind the curve on engaging the new U.S. administration. An effective European Indo-Pacific strategy will have to be based on providing alternatives to Chinese investments, public goods — from concrete help like capacity building and the provision of vaccines to broader support for international rule of law — and pursing partnerships in new formations. Unless Europe is able to deliver on all these counts, its strategies will remain paper tigers.

European Strategies on the Indo-Pacific: Similarities and Differences

Not all European engagement is created equal. Two countries clearly lead the pack. France was the first European country to champion the idea of engaging with the Indo-Pacific, with government officials publicly arguing for a strategic presence in the region since 2016. The reasons are straightforward. France has overseas territories both in the Indian Ocean (La Réunion, Mayotte, and the Scattered Islands) and in the Pacific (New Caledonia and French Polynesia), and 93 percent of France’s Exclusive Economic Zone is located in the Indo-Pacific. The region is also home to 1.5 million French citizens and 8,000 permanently stationed French soldiers. Unsurprisingly, France was the first European country to formally adopt an Indo-Pacific strategy, captured in three documents issued by its Ministry for the Armed Forces (in 2018 and subsequently updated), and the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs (June 2019 and another in April 2021 specifically on partnerships).

(…)Regional Partnerships, Policy Areas in Focus, Role of U.S.-Chinese Competition, Challenges to Europe’s Engagement in the Region, The Road Ahead


Veerle Nouwens is a senior research fellow in the International Security Studies department of the Royal United Services Institute, where she leads the Indo-Pacific Programme and focuses on geopolitical relations in the Indo-Pacific region. Her research interests include China’s foreign policy, cross-strait relations, maritime security, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Garima Mohan is a fellow in the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, where she leads the work on India and heads the India Trilateral Forum. Her research focuses on India-Europe ties, E.U. foreign policy in Asia, and security in the Indo-Pacific.


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