Sep 30, 2021

Europe Eyes the Indo-Pacific

While the focus of world politics is shifting to the Indo-Pacific, the Europeans are caught underprepared.

French Navy Rafale fighter jets are seen from the bridge of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle at Changi Naval Base in Singapore, May 28, 2019.
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“I’m honored today to be joined by two of America’s closest allies—Australia and the United Kingdom—to launch a new phase of the trilateral security cooperation among our countries. As Prime Minister [Scott] Morrison and Prime Minister [Boris] Johnson said, I want to thank you for this partnership, your vision as we embark together on this strategic mission.” So said US President Joe Biden in the White House’s East Room on September 15, framed by the “fellow from Down Under” and his British “pal.”

Seemingly, they had all forgotten about their ami in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron, with a keen eye on the goings on in the Indo-Pacific and deeply invested in a French-Australian partnership that included the delivery of French-built diesel-powered submarines (which the Australians cancelled for good measure), reacted apoplectically to the birth of AUKUS, the new trilateral security alliance underwritten with nuclear-prolled US submarines for Australia—and with good reason. The three had gone behind his back for months and not even bothered to inform him once a fait accompli had been reached (lamely, Morrison later claimed that he had “tried to call” Macron).

In a dramatic move, Paris recalled its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. For days, Macron refused to take Biden’s phone call, exploring instead a neo-Gaullist course which could have put a time bomb under the transatlantic alliance and deeply split the EU. But, after seven days, reason prevailed. In a long call with Biden on September 22, Macron accepted an invitation to a Franco-US summit as well as various American concessions and promises, including Biden’s “reaffirmation” of “the strategic importance of French and European engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.”

The rest of continental Europe had been holding its breath. While the treatment of France was criticized (“an insult to a NATO partner,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s former security advisor Christoph Heusgen later called it), no one, certainly not Berlin with a general election only days away, had the stomach to think through more deeply all the implications of yet another instance, just after the inept withdrawal from Afghanistan, of a shocking failure of US statecraft and diplomacy. (The European Union had its eye firmly on the first EU-US Trade and Tech Council in Pittsburgh.)

But probably more importantly, it laid bare an important EU blind spot. Ironically, the EU published its own Indo-Pacific strategy on the exact same day as the AUKUS announcement. It was barely noticed, and certainly underwhelmed.

The truth is: While the focus of world politics is shifting to the Indo-Pacific, the Europeans are caught underprepared. As Pepijn Bergsen reminds us in this issue, there are questions marks about whether the EU will in fact be able to develop a coherent policy for the region without getting squeezed between the US and an increasingly bellicose China. Trying to find answers to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Brussels found a better name (“Global Gateway” instead of “Interconnectivity” strategy), but not necessarily a more substantive approach, Jacob Mardell points out. And Veerle Nouwens [LINK] shows that the Americans indeed want the Europeans, and not just the French and British, to play a greater role—in certain subregions of the Indo-Pacific. “Such is today’s geopolitical challenge.”

Will Europe, and particularly Berlin, rise to it? While a new German government is being formed, the frigate Bayern (Bavaria) has just anchored in Perth. In October, it will continue its somewhat unusual, exploratory crisscrossing of the Indo-Pacific. In a move that speaks volumes of Germany’s approach in the Merkel era, the naval ship was supposed to pay a visit to Shanghai. Beijing hesitated and asked about the Bayern’s intentions. The answer must have been not to the Chinese government’s taste, as the harbor visit is now off.

Let’s hope Germany’s incoming government draws the right conclusions from this. There is no escaping the world’s “pivot to Asia.” If Europe plays no role in what this means strategically, it may soon find that it plays no role at all.

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