January 26, 2021

Can the EU and the UK Cooperate in the Indo-Pacific?

A new dialogue forum between Brussels and London on China—and by extension, the Indo-Pacific—would be in the interest of both.

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Japanese naval officer stands in front of British Navy vessel Monmouth during the Proliferation Security Initiative Exercise at Yokosuka port
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Having been told for the past four years that Britain wants little to do with it, the European Union could be excused for now not wanting to assist the United Kingdom as it attempts to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region—an area where both London and Brussels say their foreign policy interests lie. Neither, at least publicly, has the British government said it is interested in partnering with the EU on this matter.

Both the UK and EU are now issuing grand claims about their newfound autonomy in world affairs: the UK from the Brussels behemoth and the EU from the domineering (and often patronizing) hand of the United States. French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called for “strategic autonomy,” which German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer rebuffed last October. “Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end,” she stated. Yet, behind the rhetoric there is the obvious fact that neither the UK nor the EU can entirely go it alone, especially in the Indo-Pacific, a region already sweltering amid the renewed superpower rivalry between the US and China, and where so-called “middle powers” like Japan or the UK and EU are unable to resist gravitating toward either end of this axis.

Free Associations

An influential report published in November by the Policy Exchange, a British think tank, urged London to pursue flexible partnerships in the region. The “primary partners,” mostly democratic states in agreement on a rules-based order, include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and India, as well as South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. On top of this, it stated, London should seek “flexible cooperation and openness” with emerging and strategically-important partners like Vietnam, the main rival of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, Thailand, and the Philippines. Most importantly, it noted, “UK strategy should aim at a free association of partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.”

Free association, indeed, could also include the EU as well as individual European states. The first thing to note would be that the UK and EU share the same priorities in the Indo-Pacific: an uninterrupted free flow of goods through the region’s waterways, since almost two-fifths of all EU trade passes through the South China Sea; expanding trade with the region’s growing economies; ensuring peace and stability in areas like cybercrime and terrorism; and, if rhetoric is to be believed, advancing democracy and human rights in the region.

Also of note is that many opinion-formers in Washington envisage renewed transatlantic relations, now that President Joe Biden has taken office, to involve a US-EU-UK triangle, including on matters relating to the Indo-Pacific. A recent study by the Harvard Kennedy School and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), coordinated by close Biden advisor Nicholas Burns, called for “a joint EU–US–UK–Canada initiative to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to promote transparent finance and infrastructure funding for developing countries.”

Underdeveloped Strategies

Worth pointing out, too, is that while the UK and European states have made grand claims in recent years about their Indo-Pacific intent, their strategies remain underdeveloped. Whilst France published its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, Germany and the Netherlands in 2020, and the EU likely this year, they are hardly all-encompassing plans. “Global Britain” might have been a slogan thought up in the months after the Brexit referendum but the sentiment behind it had little to do with leaving the EU: Britain’s trade with Asia grew significantly between 2010 and 2016, while in 2012 then-Prime Minister David Cameron said, during a visit to Kuala Lumpur, that “the era of benign neglect is over” for UK-Southeast Asian ties. Boris Johnson, as foreign minister in 2016, was only saying what was obvious at the time when he stated that Britain’s interests lay “back east of Suez,” a rather clumsy way of phrasing Britain’s own “pivot to Asia”—and, indeed, a clumsy way of evoking a major foreign policy shift that still lacks detail on paper.

Now, having fully left the EU, the UK also exits from the EU’s institutional engagement in the Indo-Pacific, which has markedly improved since the Brexit referendum in 2016. It is now outside looking in when it comes to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, with which the EU finally became a “strategic partner” in December 2020. Because of ASEAN’s moratorium on new dialogue partners, the UK’s appeal to become one will likely be delayed for some time, although most ASEAN states favor its inclusion. More to the point, London has so far only agreed free-trade deals with the exact same Asian states the EU had previously secured FTAs with.

Yet, Britain has soft and hard power in the region that the rest of Europe lacks, especially in India and Japan, as well as in parts of Southeast Asia. On top of this, the UK retains a military outpost in Brunei and access to a naval support facility in Singapore, while there are some indications it could have a for-now secret new naval base somewhere in the region, perhaps in Japan. It is also part of the Five Power Defense Arrangements with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore. Rumors suggest that Japan might be interested in joining the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing partnership, between the UK, US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

“Ending the Era of Retreat”

Defense could be a key area of cooperation, especially if Paris and Berlin are sincere in their promises to engage in the Indo-Pacific on military matters. Germany is expected later this year to send a navy ship to the region for joint exercises with Australia. Paris has been conducting freedom-of-navigation exercises in the South China Sea for years, and will also dispatch a naval vessel to the region this year. Meanwhile, London is planning on sending its largest flotilla to the region in 2021, led by the $3.9 billion, 65,000-ton aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. In November 2020, Johnson announced that the UK’s Ministry of Defense will have an additional £16.5 billion over four years on top of its annual budget, a marker of the “end the era of retreat,” he said.

Drills and war-gaming could be conducted between British and European militaries in the region, something that has already happened. For instance, UK troops were deployed as part of France’s naval “Jeanne d’Arc” task force in the Indian Ocean in 2017. And leaving the Common Market doesn’t mean an end to intra-European defense relations, which have always been bilateral, anyway. Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in December: “It seems likely that the UK’s aim will be to have flexible structures that allow it to plug into European foreign and defense policy where doing so is in its interests.”

Indeed, the UK remains in the Joint Expeditionary Force (alongside several EU members) and part of the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force with France. It could also maintain defense ties through the creation of a European Security Council (ESC), proposed by Berlin and Paris in early 2020, and if greater weight is put behind the E3 format, of the UK, Germany, and France. As Franke noted, Brussels can now invite non-EU states to participate in Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects, so the UK could be included on those. Macron is said to support the UK’s inclusion in the proposed ESC and the European Intervention Initiative, launched in 2018. 

Key Player Japan

In the Indo-Pacific, Japan would be a key bridge for the UK and EU defense partnership. “Japan has potential for further development of defense cooperation with Europe,” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said after a meeting with his German counterpart, Kramp-Karrenbauer, in December. French troops will take part in amphibious training with US and Japanese forces in May on an uninhabited island in southwestern Japan, Japanese media reported in early December. The UK could also serve as an important conduit through which France and Germany also build up military relations with Australia and Singapore.

The environment is another area in the Indo-Pacific where cooperation can be maintained. The UK will host the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, and Johnson’s recent pledge that the UK will reduce carbon emissions by 68 percent, compared with 1990 levels, by 2030 is far greater than the EU’s goal of 55 percent. The EU would do well to try to include the UK in talks with Indonesia and Malaysia over its plans to phase out palm-oil imports, the main reason why EU negotiations with both states have stalled. Indonesia, which argues the EU’s ban on palm-oil imports is mere protectionism, has taken the case to the World Trade Organization. Funding and aid could also be streamlined to ensure EU and UK funds go to similar environmental projects in the region.

The same goes with human rights and democracy-building, issues that the EU and UK have both vowed in recent years to become bolder on internationally. Johnson’s appeal for a D-10 group of democratic nations, which will see Australia, Japan, and India attend the G7 summit in London later this year, sits well with US President Joe Biden’s idea of an “Alliance of Democracies” and with European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s vows to get tougher on human rights violators. As well as cooperation on aid, the UK and EU could also coordinate targeted sanctions against human rights violators in the Indo-Pacific, now that both have introduced their own Magnitsky-like sanctions scheme in 2020.

Divided on China

The main spanner in the work is the question of China, on which London and Brussels are now moving in opposite directions. London’s stance on Chinese activities in 2020 has often been more robust and more actionable than the EU’s rather limpid rhetoric, including on alleged “genocide” against the Uighurs in Xinjiang province and the encroachment of Hong Kong. The EU itself has also said next to nothing about Huawei, leaving it up to each member state to decide on whether to ban the Chinese tech giant from their 5G networks—and, therefore, for them to individually face Beijing’s wrath.

The European Commission’s decision in late December to agree terms on an investment pact with Beijing—the EU China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI)—was the moment that the EU revealed its true colors, many assert. The decision has been roundly criticized for allowing the Chinese government a major diplomatic victory, at the same time as selling the EU’s apparent values-led foreign policy on the altar of corporate profit. That Brussels couldn’t wait a few months to discuss a joint China policy with the new Biden administration, despite less-than-subtle overtures from the Biden camp, only adds to the sense that Brussels views China and America in equal measure.

Whilst Brussels and London appear to be heading in different directions on China, that may be temporary in the UK, as the Tory government feels pressure to adopt hostile stances toward Beijing because of the groundswell of anti-China sentiment from its backbenchers and voters. Yet, common ground can be found. In September, France, the UK, and Germany submitted joint Note Verbale to the United Nations challenging Beijing’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Indeed, if military cooperation between the European states can expand, the issue of protecting international law in the South China Sea can become one area of commonality.

What may be most helpful would be a new forum in which the UK and EU can discuss these issues. In November, the EU and US agreed to a new dialogue to talk about mutual policies relating to China, which may or may not be affected by the EU’s investment pact with Beijing. But a similar dialogue forum between the UK and EU on China isn’t inconceivable, and more likely would be some sort of forum on the larger issues of the Indo-Pacific. First, however, there needs to be some sort of admission by both sides that their respective paths to the region aren’t competitive and, in fact, because they each have advantages the other lacks, their Indo-Pacific policies could be symbiotic.  

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, covering European foreign affairs and Europe-Asia relations.

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