There is a logical link between France’s relatively narrow focus on maritime challenges to the larger issue of the rules-based international order, and the US-China rivalry. What is at stake for middle powers is their ability to defend an order against arbitrary abuses by superpowers. By contrast, Germany addresses this issue from a much broader perspective, beyond peace and security, including diversification of partnerships, support for open shipping routes, open markets and free trade, digital transformation and infrastructure connectivity, as well as climate change. Such a broad agenda aims to play on Europe’s strengths and can prove to be an asset for European engagement with the region.
Focus on ASEAN vs. bilateral and trilateral partnerships
While one of the key pillars of the German Indo-Pacific guidelines is diversification of its partnerships in the region beyond China, it is not specified how this would be achieved. The only clear indication is to be found on the German focus on ASEAN centrality. The other bilateral partnerships are only mentioned in the context of already existing initiatives and there is little indication whether Germany is interested in the various bilateral, trilateral and minilateral arrangements emerging in the region. By contrast, while France is also a staunch defender of multilateral diplomacy, what has been central in the practice of French foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific is the deepening of bilateral and trilateral ties with Australia, India and Japan. This has meant a radical rebalancing of a foreign policy agenda towards the East, traditionally dominated by France’s relationship with China.
Overcoming differences for an EU approach
As Germany and France, along with other member states, lead the debate for EU-wide policy guidelines, the discussion will certainly focus on how to pool European resources for an effective EU approach. But European unity behind an Indo-Pacific vision should not come at the cost of diluting the idea’s strategic substance. We suggest considering three areas of priorities for the EU Indo-Pacific strategy:
- Maritime security, with a focus on reducing the power asymmetries between the coastal countries of the region and China’s various maritime assets, from its Navy and Coast Guards to the militia and the long-range fishing fleets. This goal can be achieved through capacity-building for greater maritime domain awareness and deepening the web of military exchanges with the navies and the maritime law-enforcement agencies of the region.
- Infrastructure projects building on the Euro-Asian connectivity strategy, with the aim to offer alternatives to Chinese projects. Particularly in the realm of digital connectivity, 5G and critical technologies, Europe has a lot to contribute to the region and link up to the connectivity projects led by India, Japan, ASEAN and standard setting initiatives like the Blue Dot Network.
- Any EU strategy should focus on building more resilient European supply chains against disruption and manipulation. Europe is the largest trade and investment partner for most Indo-Pacific economies and should work with like-minded states to reduce its vulnerabilities and increase its leverage. The Japan-India-Australia initiative is of great interest to European nations, and Japan’s METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) appears to be a key interlocutor for the French and the German government to design policy frameworks that strengthen supply chains in vulnerable areas, like healthcare and ICT (information and communication technology).
Copyright: FRANCOIS LENOIR / POOL / AFP