Europe Pivots to Asia
The departure on May 2, 2021 of the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth from her dock at Portsmouth at the head of a six-ship flotilla marks the beginning of an epic 40-nation, 28-week, 26,000 nautical mile maiden operational deployment to the Indo-Pacific. The 65,000-ton carrier will be accompanied by two advanced Royal Navy air defense surface combatants, two anti-submarine frigates, and a nuclear-powered submarine. Significantly, the Royal Navy squadron will also be joined by the United States Navy’s Aegis Destroyer USS The Sullivans and the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen during the Indo-Pacific visits to India, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan. A blend of Royal Navy and U.S. Marine Corps pilots flying the fifth generation F-35 multi-purpose strike fighter will comprise a joint air wing for the entirety of the voyage.
The largest Royal Navy squadron assembled since the Falklands War in 1982, the Queen Elizabeth and her escorts encapsulate not only the ambitions of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain,” but also reflect a new wave of European engagement in Asia that began to crest at the turn of this decade. The UK has become the only country other than the U.S. to undertake military exercises with Japan’s SDF on Japanese soil. The British are also reinvigorating their five-power defense agreement with Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore. And in the last two years, France, Germany and the Netherlands have formulated new comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategies. EU member states and the EU bloc itself have ratified Strategic Partnership and Free Trade Agreements with the likes of ASEAN and its member states, Japan, China, and India.
This new Eurasian Entente has been pursued not only by European powers seeking to shore-up last-minute alliances and deals amidst the growing U.S.-China great power competition, but also by Indo-Pacific nations hoping to expand their pool of geopolitical resources and leverage. It’s a development the Biden Administration is watching closely. President Biden is eager to enhance America’s position vis a vis China by recommitting the United States to trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific alliances that the Trump Administration denigrated or neglected. When doing so, the Biden Administration will need to find roles for each European partner appropriate to that ally’s capabilities and interests. Such a differentiated approach will be more complicated to orchestrate than a “one size fits all” assignment of burden-sharing, but it will also prove more sustainable and ultimately be more successful at extracting from America’s European partners the resources – diplomatic, ideational, military and economic – the United States needs to promote peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.
Trump’s Wrecking Ball Cleared Space for Europe to Engage
A brief overview of pre-Biden transatlantic relations reveals how the Trump administration’s generally hardline, but often mercurial, foreign policy catalyzed this recent flurry of geo-political maneuvering between Europe and Asia. President Trump harshly criticized the United States’ NATO allies – complaining that European powers owed the U.S. billions in the wake of their failure to invest adequately in their own defense. He also denigrated the US-Japan and US-ROK alliances, viewing both Japan and South Korea as free-riders. He failed to appreciate that the U.S. position in Asia would quickly become untenable without the “cornerstone” and “linchpin” provided by Japan and South Korea. Trump relentlessly attacked the multilateral institutions in which America’s European and Asian allies are heavily invested – the UN, the World Trade Organization, the International Court of Justice. And Trump’s “America First” policy drove U.S. decisions to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, the World Health Organization, and the UN Human Rights Council.
The absence of U.S. presence and leadership in Europe facilitated Chinese influence on the continent, contributing to misaligned EU and U.S. approaches to China. Fortunately for the United States, the European Union responded to Trump’s assault on the liberal democratic order by moving to reinvigorate old alliances and create new partnerships, more out of necessity and fear of abandonment by the United States than anything else. European and Asian middle powers acted to fill the vacuum created by the United States’ withdrawal from many prominent multilateral institutions, laying the foundation for what may become a new era of U.S.-European partnership in support of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
Concerns about China and abiding economic interests will sustain EU Engagement
The EU’s emerging “pivot to the Indo-Pacific” was driven not only by Trump’s “America First” wrecking ball, but also by a mounting recognition in European capitals that China poses a genuine challenge to the international order built by the United States and post-War Europe and Japan. The EU has a deep and abiding interest in sustaining peace, security, and market access across the Indo-Pacific region. These three drivers of European engagement – worries about America’s reliability, concerns about China’s misconduct, and long-standing economic interests – are of roughly equal weight, but the first has garnered most of the headlines, until recently. In reality, the latter two factors deserve more attention.
With a few notable exceptions, the nations of the EU have long had a “laissez-faire” attitude towards China’s forays on the global stage and a “hands off” attitude toward interfering in China’s domestic political affairs. Only severe U.S. arm-twisting convinced the EU nations to impose a de facto arms embargo on China after Tiananmen, and the EU has spent most of the past twenty years trying to find a way to lift the ban. Apart from an ill-fated Dutch sale of submarines to Taiwan, the EU nations have sought to remain aloof from China-Taiwan tensions, and have provided only modest political support for Chinese political dissidents or efforts by the Dalai Lama to secure “genuine autonomy” for Tibet within a greater China. Europe did not respond meaningfully to China’s outreach to Central Asia through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001, an expansion of Chinese influence that the U.S. viewed with considerable suspicion.
Closer to home, the EU had little to say when China engaged Central and Eastern Europe in 2012 by creating the 16+1 mechanism (now 17 +1 with the addition of Greece). In fact, European nations were initially quite favorably inclined toward the 17+1 grouping, welcoming Chinese capital to upgrade the region’s aging infrastructure and competing to become the preferred “gateway” for China’s entry into Europe. In the face of Chinese misinformation tactics and political interference, no individual European state pushed back at first, fearing perhaps to put at risk the already fragile and fraying EU unity in response to China’s rise.
Beginning in 2014, however, the EU received a series of increasingly urgent “three AM wake-up calls,” stirring the historically complacent and geopolitically inactive union to action. First, the people of Hong Kong organized extensive street protests against Beijing’s infringement of the political freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong under the 1984 Basic Law. The “Umbrella Movement” of September-December 2014 presented Europe with a compelling story line pitting Chinese authoritarianism against freedom and openness in a former British colonial outpost. Since the birth of the Umbrella Movement, China’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong has intensified, leaving its Legislative Council governing body shorn of all democratic legitimacy, with many of its former members under arrest or indictment for endangering Chinese state security.
Second, China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang came to the world’s attention in 2018 when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said that it had received credible reports that China was holding more than 1 million Uighurs in massive internment camps in the frontier province of Xinjiang. China’s mistreatment of its Uighur minority resonated in a Europe all too familiar with the ways in which ethnic and racial persecution can escalate into crimes against humanity, genocide, and interstate conflict. In October 2018, the European Parliament approved a declaration condemning China’s repression, adding a strong European voice to a growing chorus of global concern. The United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his successor Tony Blinken have both condemned China’s treatment of Uighurs as “genocide,” and the United States, along with the EU and Canada, has imposed sanctions on dozens of Chinese officials and companies and has banned imports of finished products and raw materials from Xinjiang.
Third, the EU became increasingly alarmed by mounting evidence that Chinese investment in Europe, whether under the auspices of China’s Belt-Road Initiative (BRI), the 17+1 mechanism, or other means, came with significant political strings attached. China made no secret of its effort to play one European state off against another in a classic “divide and conquer” tactic designed to silence criticism of China’s foreign and domestic policies. Moreover, Europe’s security experts became convinced that Chinese IT giant Huawei posed a legitimate security threat. Urged by the United States to block China’s foray into Europe’s telecommunications 5G upgrade, first Romania, and then a cascade of CEE nations (Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Czechia, Slovenia, Albania, Lithuania, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and North Macedonia), joined Washington’s Clean Network initiative, depriving Huawei of a much-coveted position in the lead of Europe’s telecommunications modernization.
In addition to the motivation provided by Trump’s “America First” xenophobia and China’s attempts to re-write the rules of the liberal democratic order, the nations of Europe also have a deep and abiding economic self-interest in ensuring peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. A free and open Indo-Pacific – to include not only market access, but also freedom of navigation – is indispensable for the economic well-being of the EU. The Indo-Pacific is the EU’s second largest destination for exports, accounting for 35% of all EU exports. Moreover, almost 90% of all EU exports pass through the Indo-Pacific region, including massive sea traffic through the contested South China Sea. Four out the EU’s top ten trading partners are located in the Indo-Pacific, and the EU is also China’s largest trading partner. Finally, the EU has massive FDI in ASEAN states totaling 337 billion euros in 2017 (surpassing US, Chinese, and Japanese FDI to the Southeast Asian grouping).
Components, and Limits, of Europe’s Pivot to Asia
Spurred on by Trumpism, the rise of China, and enduring economic interests, the nations of Europe are assembling their own versions of the Obama Administration’s “Pivot to Asia.” In 2019, the EU designated China as a strategic competitor. France, Germany and the Netherlands have ratified formal Indo-Pacific strategies, and have agreed to push for a more comprehensive EU-wide Indo-Pacific policy. In 2020, the EU decided to extend its Critical Maritime Rules Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO) project, an initiative for ensuring safer lines of communication and information sharing, to South and Southeast Asia. The EU and its member states have also ramped up, both as a bloc and independently, comprehensive FTA’s with Asian states. The EU, Japan, Singapore, and Vietnam signed comprehensive FTA’s over the past two years, strengthening trade relationships that were already robust.
On the security front, the EU-ASEAN relationship was upgraded in 2020 to a Strategic Partnership, shedding the donor-recipient characteristic it had until recently. The effectiveness of this agreement remains unproven, but more than half of all Southeast Asian defense imports originate from Europe, and high-level security and political dialogues have been a consistent feature in EU-ASEAN relations. In addition to this month’s sailing of the Queen Elizabeth, France is planning its first joint military exercise with Japan and the United States for the spring of 2021. All of these facts suggest the nations of Europe will be able to further deepen their coordination with Asian partners in response to China’s growing economic clout and military capabilities.
Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” Strategy will endure
It is ironic that the fluid geopolitical dynamics of the world’s most important region will likely be shaped for decades to come by an American Indo-Pacific Strategy drafted by an Administration that seemed to have little use for allies – viewing them more as burdens than as assets. Trump’s push to popularize the term “Indo-Pacific,” and Trump’s embrace of Japan’s outreach out to India and Australia and the United States to form the “Quad” provided the new conceptual framework within which European and Asian nations are today remodeling their connection to Asia. For all its faults, the Trump Administration lit a fire under dormant U.S. democratic allies, bringing European powers out of their continental shell, and emboldening Asian powers to hedge against a possible U.S. absence of leadership by constructing their own “Look South” or “Look East” policies to balance China’s growing economic, military, and political influence.
Although many U.S. allies and democracies breathed a sigh of relief with the arrival of the Biden administration and a return of U.S. support for multilateralism, globalism, and international organizations, they will ultimately engage the Indo-Pacific from a scaffolding erected by not only by Obama Administration’s “Pivot to Asia,” but also by the Trump Administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy – a scaffolding that the Biden Administration itself has adopted and declared central to U.S. efforts to foster a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
As a result of China’s rise and its illiberal approach to many global security, economic, and human rights norms, a reinforced coalition of European liberal democracies is emerging, spurred on by an understanding for the need to uphold the liberal democratic order. China’s growing economic and political influence make clear that non-regional actors such as the EU can no longer ignore the geopolitics of Asia, particularly when the red brick road and iron rails of China’s Belt and Road Initiative lead to Europe itself. The Biden Administration appears poised to capitalize on this organically developing EU reengagement with Asia. It presents the United States a unique opportunity to reimagine and shore-up an Indo-Pacific balance of power that up until now has relied almost exclusively on the U.S. led hub-and spoke alliance network.
U.S. Leadership Still Essential
The maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth task force dramatically symbolizes Britain’s determination to “build back better” as it reengages the Indo-Pacific. President Biden will surely welcome the commitment, and his administration has made clear its intention to construct an Indo-Pacific architecture that is open and inclusive. It has invited European and Asian nations to do more in defense of the liberal democratic order that has so well served their interests and those of the United States. European nations can bring to bear not only aircraft carrier battle groups, but also the full weight of their diplomatic, economic, and cultural soft power. An affirmative multilateral agenda to promote peace, equitable economic development, environmental protection, transparency, good governance and human rights will prove more sustainable than either an “America First” agenda or a strategy founded on containment and zero-sum thinking. The diverse interests of Europe can prove to be an asset for the United States as it seeks to forge a more cooperative, albeit still competitive, relationship with China.
But just as was true for NATO in Europe, finding harmony among diverse European actors will require strong U.S. leadership. A U.S. conductor can help European and Asian powers work together to reinforce shared values and defend common interests. This conductor role should come naturally to President Biden, who spent most of his 36 years in the Senate deeply engaged on U.S.-NATO relations and the geopolitics of Cold War Europe. He understands the relative strengths and weaknesses of the major European powers. He knows how to work with each to craft a functional multilateral approach; one that allows each state to choose from a menu of options for how best to work in the Indo-Pacific region. The ultimate goal is to preserve the core elements of the liberal democratic order in the Indo-Pacific, transforming a scatter-shot approach into a coherent defense of global norms. It’s an enormous job, but one made easier in the company of allies.
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