The Indo-Pacific will be the main theatre in the emerging systemic rivalry between the United States and China. This has also initiated a fundamental change in Europe’s perception of the region. For a long time, Europe - i.e. the European Union (EU) and its member states - have seen the region mostly as an economic opportunity. Europe is among the largest investors in the region and one of its most important trading partners. Germany conducts more than 20 percent of its trade with countries of the Indo-Pacific. The EU as the largest trading bloc has an overarching interest in the Indo-Pacific which will be shaped by multilateralism and a rules-based order rather than by great power competition.
The Indo-Pacific strategy of the EU that builds on similar documents from France, Germany, and the Netherlands signals a geopolitical and geo-economic shift towards the region.
Traditionally, the EU has its strength in the field of soft power rather than in hard power. Accordingly, the priority areas are: sustainable and inclusive prosperity, green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnerships, connectivity, human security, but also security and defence.
The EU also aims at a stronger security role, for instance by coordinating future European naval presence in the region. European naval powers like France and the United Kingdom have traditionally been present in the Indo-Pacific. The mission of the German frigate Bayern underlines Germany’s new commitment to contribute to security in the region. Moreover, the EU plans to expand its CRIMARIO project in the Western Indian Ocean to other parts of the Indo-Pacific. Europe’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific will also be an important test case for its ambitions for sovereignty and strategic autonomy and its quest to become a global power.
Europe faces various challenges. A first challenge will be to increase Europe’s visibility in the region. Countries like France, which is a resident power in the region, will follow different approaches compared to Germany or the Netherlands. So Europe’s approach to the region will be a differentiated rather than a unified one. Second, Europe has to provide proper resources. The EU’s Global Gateway strategy aims to mobilise 300 billion Euros until 2027. This would allow the EU to offer viable alternatives for infrastructure projects. Third, Europe and its member states will have to adapt to the emerging architecture in the region. Many regional organisations have lost importance in recent years whereas mini-lateral formats like Quad have gained importance. This is a challenge for the EU and countries like Germany which have traditionally been strong protagonists of regional organisations. The new connectivity agreements with established partners like India and Japan underline Europe’s ambitions to become a stronger player in the region.
Europe’s economic strength will be an important contribution to the future of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. One of the main challenges will be to find a common, coherent and sustained approach among its members.