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September 30, 2021

Why Europe’s Enhanced Military Presence in the Indo-Pacific Is an Asset

Better coordination is needed if Europeans are to contribute to the region’s security and defense and be seen as serious partners by the countries there.

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An officer stands on the deck as the White Ensign flies from the stern of the ship during the Commissioning Ceremony of the Royal Navy's aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, in Portsmouth, Britain December 7, 2017.
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When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his vision for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific in 2016, the confluence between the Indian and Pacific Oceans as an arena for geopolitical and geo-economic competition and cooperation had yet to be fully grasped in Europe.

Back then only two European powers, the United Kingdom and France, stood out in signaling their interest in this maritime-centric concept, but the momentum in Europe has now grown, with European Indo-Pacific strategies being matched with a greater interest in having a presence in the region to contribute to regional defense and security. However, the question should not be one of whether Europe should do so, but rather one of how it can best do so. Creative, coordinated, and sometimes collective action on a range of traditional and non-traditional maritime security issues stand to benefit from European engagement. But expectations must be tempered, objectives should be realistic, and communication consistent.

As a resident power with territories across the two oceans, France unsurprisingly was first to highlight its strategy for the Indo-Pacific in 2018. The UK, while not releasing the framework for its “Indo-Pacific tilt” until 2021, already started using the term Indo-Pacific as early as 2018. The Netherlands and Germany followed suit by publishing guidelines for their approaches in 2020, with a European Union Indo-Pacific Strategy released not long after in 2021.

All these strategies and guidelines focused on the complex and diverse challenges that face the region, and the potential impact that these may have on European economic prosperity. There is an increased understanding of Indo-Pacific as an economic driving force of the global economy in Europe—as the EU strategy notes, roughly 60 percent of the global population produces 60 percent of global GDP and contributed to two-thirds of pre-pandemic global economic growth. Whether stemming from environmental challenges, transitional crime, democratic backsliding, or geopolitical tensions, European economies stand to be negatively affected by challenges far from their shores.  Indeed, as the EU strategy states, the Indo-Pacific is home to four of the EU’s 10 biggest trading partners, while the British government notes that the region accounts for 17.5 percent of UK global trade and 10 percent of inwards foreign direct investment.

A Naval Role

The growing interest in an enhanced European presence in the Indo-Pacific has also led to an examination of what European contributions to regional defense and security could look like. In particular, the presence of European naval vessels in the Indo-Pacific coupled with the recent European strategies to this region have raised questions about their objective, sustainability, and future coordination with partners inside and outside of the region.

Europeans clearly see a naval role for themselves in the region.  The Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen joined the HMS Queen Elisabeth Carrier Strike Group’s (CSG21) inaugural deployment to the Indo-Pacific in 2021. Germany’s deployment of the frigate Bayern is the country’s first presence in the region in over 20 years and it will remain there until early 2022. This builds on the French and UK deployments and presence across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, some of which is permanent. For its part, the UK will deploy two Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) for five years to the region, a littoral response group based at its naval base in Duqm, Oman, in the Indian Ocean Region, and a destroyer by 2030.

These deployments are significant in and of themselves. They send signals to partners in the region that the rules of the adherence to the international rules of the road in the Indo-Pacific should be respected as much there as anywhere else. It also speaks to their concerns about growing Chinese military assertiveness, its rejection of principles agreed to under UNCLOS, and its ongoing conduction of gray-zone activities to intimidate and overwhelm the capacities of smaller countries in the region. But the value of European naval contributions to the region will not be measured by countries simply in terms of the number of ships present in their waters. Nor should it. Europe’s capacity for naval projection to the region is limited. Pressures closer to home, particularly with regard to Russia, which the UK has noted remains an acute threat to its national security, will necessitate a balance between the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions. Europe’s naval presence in the Indo-Pacific will be one that is supportive, not leading, in nature and focused on greater cooperation with close regional partners. 

Tackling Maritime Challenges

However, expectation management here is crucial. Regional partners are seeking to better understand the purpose of European deployments, the sustainability of this presence, and whether they are part of comprehensive strategies rather than ad-hoc activities that they fear could risk raising tensions with China. To that end, European Indo-Pacific strategies so far, have signaled that European navies, as but one tool of defense and security policy, stand to contribute to more than the upholding of freedom of navigation in the region and to symbolize concern over China. Indeed, wider capacity building for maritime security can help mitigate a range of maritime challenges by building greater maritime domain awareness and regional capabilities to combat challenges like illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUUF).

The EU strategy, for example, highlights joint exercises and port calls with partners, as well as an exploration of whether the EU could establish an EU Coordinated Maritime Areas of Interest in the Indo-Pacific based on the EU’s Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) concept and lessons learned so far. The strategy notes an intention to extend its CRIMARIO capacity-building project from the Western Indian Ocean and South and Southeast Asia to the South Pacific. The UK’s decision to deploy two OPV’s, while modest, is an economically viable solution for a persistent presence and stands to be used more flexibly across the region in alignment with strategic messaging around cooperation and capacity building, while leaving the larger and more deterrence-oriented assets for when they are most needed.

The China Question

The adoption of the concept of the Indo-Pacific is in part a move away from a singular focus on China and instead incorporates China policy into a wider geographic remit that appreciates the dynamism and importance of other countries and thematic policy areas in the region. However, clear strategies toward China will be vital if European actors wish to meaningfully engage in the region in defense and security terms. There is a growing recognition of serious differences between the European and Chinese world view, with the EU and UK labelling China a strategic rival—though also a partner—and systemic competitor, respectively. However, the lack of clear and, importantly, coordinated China strategies risks undermining European Indo-Pacific approaches.

Germany’s overly cautious approach to the deployment of Bayern is a case in point in how a low risk appetite for drawing Beijing’s ire can risk sending mixed messages to countries in the region. So, too, did reports that the UK would steer clear of sailing through the Taiwan Strait as part of the CSG21 mission, leading to questions about whether the UK was still more interested in protecting its economic relationship with China than putting into action its purported commitment to freedom of navigation. It is not clear whether the reporting was premature or whether the reaction prompted a change of course, given that the UK’s HMS Richmond passed through the Strait en route to Vietnam.

These two examples highlight the fact that consistency in messaging and action are crucial if Europeans are to be effective in the region and seen as serious partners, irrespective of what their policy toward China will ultimately be, though questions are being raised in light of the AUKUS agreement over how long continental Europe can maintain a policy of strategic ambiguity vis-à-vis China.

Whichever road they take, European naval deployments must fit into regional architecture. The strategies mention, to varying degrees, cooperation with NATO global partners Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. The EU is stepping up its relationship with India. The UK has done the same, while also deepening its defense relationship with Japan. They are also focusing on cooperation within existing regional groupings like ASEAN, while the UK also focusses on its Five Powers Defense Arrangements and Five Eyes Alliance. Smaller “mini-lateral” groupings of countries around specific issues, are also of interest. France has exercised with the Quad, composed of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States, and recently participated in trilateral exercises with the US and Japan. The UK, as part of CSG21 also exercised with Japan and the US, building on previous commitments to do so.

Not a Futile Exercise

These are all promising developments, signals, and commitments to a region where the challenges in maritime security are not insignificant. It would be a mistake to analyze the European naval presence in the region as an inherently futile exercise by virtue of not being able to match, for example, the capabilities or defense assets of the United States or China in the region. The interpretation in some media reporting that the United States believes that European presence would be “more helpful” if deployed closer to home, as also recently reiterated by Dutch news media, is questionable. A full reading of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s comments in his IISS Fullerton Forum speech in Singapore shows how his statement was taken out of context—to a certain extent, AUKUS is a signal of that. Indeed, as Austin noted, the US and UK are “not only looking to help each other in the Indo-Pacific,” but are also “looking to ensure that we help each other in other parts of the world, as well.” While the US would understandably have greater capacity in the Indo-Pacific, the UK—and one would imagine other European powers—might be able to take the lead in other areas or specific sub-regions of the Indo-Pacific’s vast geography.

Such is the nature of today’s geostrategic challenge. No single country is equipped with the resources to pursue a wholly unilateral approach to address the challenges in the Indo-Pacific from state and non-state actors alike. Furthermore, in order to ensure that the European engagement in the Indo-Pacific matches the needs and requests of partners in the Indo-Pacific, a network approach is the most appropriate for the region. Strength in numbers also help send a signal to Beijing, and others, that the international community is closely watching and willing to respond.

This will, however, also require intra-European coordination and not just amongst member states under an EU umbrella. Indeed, despite post-Brexit and post-AUKUS tensions, the UK and European partners would be remiss not to find areas of naval and maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific given their shared objectives, limited resources, and previous cooperation. Indeed, the UK, France, and Germany’s joint statement on the South China Sea, as well as previous French-UK bilateral naval cooperation in the region serve as foundations on which to build.

As Europe navigates into the Indo-Pacific, there will undoubtedly be further tests of political will. If it can overcome these, then a concerted move toward a consistent and coordinated approach to defense and security questions in the Indo-Pacific, and one which is complementary to the wishes of countries in the region, stands to being added value to the region.

Veerle Nouwens is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies Department of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), focusing on geopolitical relations in the Asia-Pacific region.

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