Katerina Ang, Contributing writer
When Australia's then-ambassador to France met Emmanuel Macron for the first time in late 2017, he expected the French president to open with diplomatic niceties and small talk.
Instead, Macron cut straight to the point. “He said that he was aware of the threat situation in the Indo-Pacific and that Australia would not be alone,” Brendan Berne, the Australian diplomat, told Nikkei Asia.
Less than six months later, Macron was in Australia to unveil the broad outlines of his Indo-Pacific strategy, which committed the Group of Seven power to protecting maritime security and a rules-based international order. France was the first European state to release plans for enhanced participation in the region and has since been joined by Germany and the Netherlands. The three countries are leading the drafting of the European Union's Indo-Pacific strategy, which European diplomats hope will be released this year.
And while Britain has left the EU, it too is making its presence felt. The UK, like the US and Australia, has been heavily critical of Beijing's security crackdown in Hong Kong. The head of Asia-Pacific policy at the Foreign Office has been renamed director-general for the Indo-Pacific.
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As new US president Joe Biden settles in, he is expected to reach out to Asian allies, deepen engagement and craft a strategy for dealing with China. But the US, the biggest western power, will not be the only one on the radar in the post-Donald Trump era.
Europe's eye might have wandered from Asia since postwar decolonisation, but Europeans still have significant economic interests in the region. Two-way trade between China and the EU totalled €480bn ($582bn) last year, and the EU's foreign direct investment stock in the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations states came to €337bn in 2017 — more than any other investor. Between 8 and 12 per cent of all trade conducted by Britain, France and Germany passes through the contested South China Sea.
Although the Indo-Pacific concept is often depicted as a framework to contain Chinese aggression — Trump's regional strategy explicitly sought to “prevent Chinese acquisition of military and strategic capabilities” — the European strategies are generally couched in the neutral terms of keeping the Indo-Pacific free and open. Senior European diplomats insist they are not supporting actors in a Sino-American stand-off.
“Our Indo-Pacific strategy is not at all directed against China,” Christophe Penot, France's recently appointed Indo-Pacific ambassador, told Nikkei Asia. “It is very important that a multipolar region should be allowed to develop.”
However, with the exception of the French — who have “Overseas France” islands and 1.8m-plus citizens in the Indo-Pacific, as well as extensive contacts with the Indians and Australians — it was only in the past 12 to 18 months that European states came around to the importance of active Asian engagement, analysts say.
“We still have the same rhetoric [about Beijing] being an economic partner . . . but with the 5G scandals, coronavirus and 'wolf warrior' diplomacy, it is now seen as a present security challenge,” said Eva Pejsova, a Japan expert at Vrije Universiteit Brussel who advises the EU's diplomatic service.
The Germans and the Dutch “know geopolitical weight is shifting to the Indo-Pacific”, she added. “They want to be part of the change and not to sit idly by.”
Germany's guidelines, adopted by the cabinet last September, lay out principles of law and order and freedom of navigation, while calling for co-operation with countries with “shared values” such as Australia, Japan and South Korea. Even this restrained rhetoric prompted pushback from Beijing.
“Germany's latest policy guidelines . . . herald a US-Germany convergence in the future of their attitudes and overall policy lines in handling issues in this region,” wrote the Xinhua state news agency. It went on to mock Germany's lack of regional nous and warn that “China-Europe relations may never be the same”.
Other regional powers have been more receptive to the prospect of a renewed European presence. Australia, whose relations with China are at their lowest point in decades, has been dispatching diplomats across European capitals for the past year to shore up support.
“France has no illusions of being a great power of the 19th century, but sees itself as a balancing power that counts,” Berne said. “That is collectively the right outcome for us.”
India quietly backed France's entry to the Indian Ocean Rim Association in December, which made France the first member without a mainland in the region. New Delhi has also long urged the EU to deploy a more assertive foreign policy, said Bhaswati Mukherjee, former head of the Western Europe division at India's foreign ministry.
“If other countries decide to invest in the region, this is something we would welcome,” said Mukherjee, who also served as ambassador to the Netherlands. “The rise of China is a threat to western peace and security . . . all this time, the EU has mollycoddled the Chinese and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses.”
And while the Asean states have widely divergent relations with China, a more assertive Europe would be welcomed by governments that have chafed at perceived western neglect of south-east Asia in favour of north-east Asian powers.
An engaged EU would easily slot into the region's security architecture, said Kanti Bajpai, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “It fits Asean's strategy of having all the big powers be players, so they all offset each other to an extent.”
The most visible component of revived European interest in the Indo-Pacific is the deployment of military assets.
In 2019, for instance, the French aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle berthed in Singapore as defence minister Florence Parly gave a well-received speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“We believe we can chart our own way, avoid confrontation and carry a distinctive voice,” Parly said, calling for friends and “people of goodwill” to join in the defence of the rule-based international system. “In a peaceful, multilateral but robust way, we hope to accompany the vast rebalancing that is taking place in the region.”
Additionally, Paris has an agreement with India on reciprocal use of naval bases, as well as roughly 5,000 troops and a dozen ships across three “permanent areas of responsibility” around the Indo-Pacific French entities of New Caledonia, Reunion and French Polynesia.
Britain is set to send an aircraft carrier group to the region later this year, and is part of the Five Powers military alliance that also includes the former colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced in November that Bundesmarine officers would serve on Australian ships during Indian Ocean patrols. Berlin is also poised to send a frigate to Japan by summer.
“The EU recognises that soft power alone does not make it a force to be reckoned with internationally, but it was held back by the UK at the behest of the Americans,” said Mukherjee.
But, France aside, the Europeans don't have the capacity to project significant hard power in the region, said Collin Koh, a defence specialist at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “The Europeans will put more focus on their economic presence. The military presence is secondary and to reinforce the image that they are engaged and interested.”
Some also doubt Europe's economic influence following the rise of China. But others still see potential in less glamorous capacity building and technology transfers — areas where France's Ambassador Penot suggests an explicit EU-wide strategy is really needed.
“The EU is already a major partner and can bring a lot in terms of security, concepts, free trade, infrastructure and development aid,” he said. “It is a very important part of our national strategy to pursue this objective of having full EU involvement.”
Over the past three years, the EU has inked free trade deals with Singapore and Vietnam, plus a crisis management agreement with the latter. The bloc has also been negotiating with Australia on an FTA since 2018. On December 1, weeks before sealing an investment pact with China, the EU agreed with Asean to upgrade relations to a strategic partnership with an eye toward a trade pact.
France, Italy and Sweden supply significant arms to Asean navies and since 2018, the EU has co-chaired the Asean Regional Forum Inter-Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security. European civil society groups and government-linked organisations are also heavily involved in helping local communities combat illegal fishing.
“We have identified and boosted security ties [in particular] with the Indonesians and the Vietnamese,” said Pejsova. “And the work we're doing at the institutional level on cyber security, preventive diplomacy and women's rights is appreciated at the Asean level.”
China, of course, is not sitting still while the Europeans figure out their strategy. As the EU struggles to vaccinate its own citizens against coronavirus, Beijing has agreed to dispatch millions of vials of the Sinovac vaccine to Myanmar, the Philippines and Indonesia.
And while European aid can come with human rights conditions that the more authoritarian regimes in Asean find irksome, the Chinese have no such qualms, Bajpai noted.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, concluding a south-east Asian tour in January, stressed that Beijing's relationship with the bloc has deepened while warning countries to “be on guard against all kinds of pseudo-multilateralism”.
There are also questions about the impact of the new Biden administration on European Indo-Pacific strategy. Much of the impetus for the EU to become more engaged internationally originated in worries about Trump's isolationism and perceived disdain for the transatlantic alliance. But Biden has pledged to be more consultative with allies. He has also appointed China hawk Kurt Campbell as the White House's “Indo-Pacific tsar”.
Some Democratic national security heavyweights like Michele Flournoy, who narrowly missed out on becoming defence secretary, have suggested that the Europeans might want to focus on north Atlantic security, which would allow the US to dedicate more resources to the Indo-Pacific.
But the Europeans say they are not going anywhere.
“If the US is back, that's great, but the world is not the same as it was four years ago,” said Pejsova. “Let's not forget that in the past four years, most US allies have also done their bit. Europe doesn't want to give up the whole idea of strategic autonomy just because the US is back.”
Additional reporting by Koya Jibiki and Yasuo Takeuchi