Lessons from Ukraine for the Indo-Pacific
China’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that this war is not just a European crisis. It’s no longer possible to consider Europe and the Indo-Pacific as two separate, siloed theaters.
Timing has not been on the European Union’s side when it comes to its Indo-Pacific ambitions. The EU’s first ever Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, hosted in Paris by the French Presidency of the Council at the end of February, has gone largely unnoticed due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And the release of the EU’s long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2021 was overshadowed by the announcement of the AUKUS security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Held mere hours after President Vladimir Putin of Russia recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, as the threat of aggression in Europe loomed large, the EU’s focus on the far-flung Indo-Pacific seemed almost out of place. But long-running trends say otherwise. If Europe wants to be able to be a truly relevant geopolitical actor and to effectively defend its interests and security globally, increasing its involvement in the Indo-Pacific region is a necessity.
The repercussions of Russia’s invasion will be felt far and wide, including in the Indo-Pacific. And this crisis presents both risks and opportunities for Europe and its Indo-Pacific ambitions.
All about China
On February 22, for the first time ever, the foreign ministers of the EU-27 met with around 30 of their Indo-Pacific counterparts at a high-level forum in Paris. China and the US were conspicuously absent from the gathering, neither having been invited.
As one of the main proponents of greater European “strategic autonomy,” Paris seemed to be sending dual messages to Washington and Beijing. First, that it intends to push for progress on the implementation of the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy independently of the US. Second, that although a central piece of the EU’s strategy is inclusivity and cooperation, China remains one of the main challenges to European interests and to the rules-based international order.
The focus of the forum was mostly on cooperating with partners in the region on global issues, ranging from biodiversity and climate change to post-COVID-19 economic recovery. Meanwhile, the regional dynamics of geopolitical competition—and China—were largely absent from the opening session and closing press conference.
To be sure, one of the closed-door roundtables focused on security issues and the EU also announced a significant extension of the concept of a coordinated maritime presence in the northwest Indian Ocean, which will allow the EU to promote the coherence of European actions and naval deployments in the region, and to facilitate the exchange of information and cooperation with partners. And the subtext of the forum was clear: It was all about China.
By holding this forum despite the unfolding security situation in Europe, the EU hoped to demonstrate its commitment to multilateralism, and to display a show of unity to regional partners, to convince them of the EU’s seriousness and determination when it comes to the Indo-Pacific. Despite these grand ambitions, however, the forum also served as a stark demonstration of the EU’s reluctance to engage with the thornier aspects of its involvement in the Indo-Pacific.
Economic interests are at the core of the EU’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. But as Russia’s war against Ukraine has demonstrated, Europe cannot afford to lose sight of geopolitical realities and of the possibility that regional conflicts may escalate. And this newfound awareness must extend to the Indo-Pacific. That region is, after all, one of the main arenas of geopolitical competition, and home to some of the world's most dangerous hotspots, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Hard Power and Strategic Thinking
There is a clear risk that the war in Ukraine and the rapidly unfolding humanitarian crisis that Russia’s invasion has created will take Europe’s focus away from the Indo-Pacific, stalling any progress on the implementation of its strategy.
The war, however, may also have the opposite effect. President Putin’s aggression has managed to unify the EU and more broadly the West in an unprecedented fashion. It has reinforced the importance of strategic thinking and hard power in Brussels and across European capitals, while also bringing to the forefront the importance of NATO. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has served as a forceful reminder to Europeans that the rules-based international order, as well as global peace and stability are fragile and under constant threat. And that war remains, sadly, a distinct possibility in geopolitically tense regions.
Tensions Will Rise
The importance of the Indo-Pacific for the rules-based international order is only going to be brought into even sharper focus as a result of the war in Ukraine.
China’s response to the crisis, a result of its close relationship with Russia, should serve as evidence that this war is not just a European crisis, and that it is no longer possible to consider Europe and the Indo-Pacific as two separate, siloed theaters.
Beijing’s position has been one of apparent rhetorical neutrality, but in reality of tacit support for Moscow’s positions: China opposes NATO enlargement, blames the US for inciting tensions, and stands by Russia’s demands that its “legitimate security concerns” must be respected.
Meanwhile, Beijing has refused to call this a “war” and leaked documents show that official Chinese media have been asked not to use any pro-Western language in their coverage. For the Chinese leadership, this is not just about the future of Ukraine. It plays into larger questions about geopolitical competition and about how China wants to position itself vis-à-vis Russia and the West now and in the future. And Beijing seems to have made a call. This prioritization of its strategic partnership with Russia over improving ties with the West is likely to have a negative impact on China’s relations with Europe and other Western partners.
A New Coalition
Additionally, Russia’s aggression has not only galvanized responses from the EU and NATO. As seen in the voting records at the UN on resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression and the list of countries imposing sanctions on Russia, a Western-led coalition of like-minded allies and partners—including in the Indo-Pacific—is coalescing. This is not to say that this broad, loose coalition would remain together in other crises. However, this development is bound to be causing concern in Beijing, which has long feared the emergence of a US-led coalition in the Indo-Pacific designed to contain its return to global power status. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has already revealed these concerns by warning the US not to try to establish an Indo-Pacific version of NATO to “suppress” Beijing’s rise.
While these are two very different issues that would lead to different responses from the rest of the world, this crisis also has clear implications for Taiwan. Beijing must be watching the West’s united response to the Ukraine crisis and the extent of the sanctions imposed on Russia with some trepidation. This is being seen by some in China as a dry run for a potential response to an attack on Taiwan, and the Chinese leadership is likely to take action as a result in order to reduce dependencies and mitigate any potential future damage to China’s economy and interests. Self-reliance is now the name of the game, and it was cited as one of China’s top economic priorities going forward during the recently-held National People’s Congress.
Tensions in the Indo-Pacific are, therefore, likely to increase, as geopolitical blocs and alliances solidify. While this does not mean that open conflict should be expected any time soon, risks will increase as the regional dynamics shift.
Mustering the Political Will
One of the main concerns of Indo-Pacific partners regarding Europe’s ambitions in the region has been the credibility and sustainability of its interest and presence. The crisis in Ukraine may help assuage these fears, by demonstrating that Europe is able to muster the political will and unity to respond to major geopolitical crises, and that member states are able to overcome their different national positions when push comes to shove. Strategic autonomy is gaining momentum as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it is now up to the EU and its member states to show that they are committed to the Indo-Pacific region. This calls for Europe not to let the war divert all of its attention away from its other foreign policy priorities and to apply the lessons learned from Russia’s attack on Ukraine to its broader strategic thinking.
As the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said in his speech to the European Parliament on March 1, “one of the lessons that we had to learn from the invasion of Ukraine is that more than ever, Europe must think strategically about itself, its environment, and the world. It is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
Helena Legarda is lead analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), focusing on China’s defense and security policies.