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  2. Europe Pivots to Asia

Europe Pivots to Asia

Matthieu Lebreton (Graduate Student, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service / Intern at the Mansfield Foundation) and Frank Jannuzi (President and CEO, The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation)


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.


It would be dangerously optimistic for the United States to expect the nations of Europe to be always in tune with each other, much less with Washington, when it comes to meeting the challenges they face in the Indo-Pacific. The UK, France, and Germany have found themselves to be at great odds with regards to the future of Europe’s “strategic autonomy” as it pertains to Asia. All three nations have been offering up a smorgasbord of statements with regards to Europe’s involvement in the protection of the global commons.


Britain’s exit from the EU and subsequent attachment to the concept of “Global Britain” only deepened an existing rift between Paris and Berlin on how best to engage Asia. Chancellor Merkel and President Macron have been pulling Europe’s vision in nearly opposite directions when it comes to defining a global security mission for the EU. Furthermore, smaller stakeholders such as Greece and Hungary have pursued closer alignment with China, and they have the capacity to disrupt the further development of a truly comprehensive EU Indo-Pacific Strategy. If Europe cannot agree on its own strategic purpose in the context of a bolstered transatlantic relationship, it will be hard-pressed to unify around a strategy for hard-power projection in a region as distant as the Indo-Pacific. As it comes to terms with the breathing room offered by a Biden presidency centered around multilateralism, the EU would do well to try to walk before it runs. Most European powers will refrain from mechanically aligning themselves with the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Diplomatic and rhetorical nuance are sure to characterize Europe’s approach to the Indo-Pacific, and its engagement with Asian states will also be restricted by the limits of their respective power projection capabilities.


Given these realities, a flexible U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy that permits each European state to calibrate its contributions makes more sense than attempting to impose a rigid order with uniform requirements. Nowhere will this flexibility be more essential than in the realm of security. While European interests in Asia are fast becoming a core priority of the EU’s foreign policy, EU powers have long been only marginal players in promoting security in the Indo-Pacific and will likely remain so. In the post-Vietnam War, post-Cold War world, European states largely withdrew their military forces from the region, focusing their attention and resources on consolidating post-Soviet opportunities to build a more integrated European community. Managing Russian disinformation tactics on the continent and preserving the latter’s fragile order have taken precedence over affairs in Asia. The handover of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty effectively marked the end of Britain’s military presence in the region, and it has been years since France has projected much naval power in the Pacific. Given their relatively meager capabilities – witness the UK’s requirement to augment the fighter wing aboard the Queen Elizabeth with U.S. Marine Corps pilots – any European military presence in the Indo-Pacific will be largely symbolic, but it will act as a force-multiplier for U.S. led initiatives and signal to China that European states are resolved to defend their legitimate security interests in Asia. 


Britain and France: Different Pathways, Similar Goals


The novel trade and security independence of “Global Britain” opens up a plethora of new pathways for the United Kingdom to advance its interests in the Indo-Pacific, sometimes in concert with the EU, and sometimes acting alone or in partnership with other allies. London has signaled its commitment to bolstering its strategic influence by reaching out decisively to Japan. The UK’s willingness to earmark Freedom of Navigation operations and joint military exercises – and the necessity for it to fill in wide trade gaps following Brexit –– highlights the potential of deep and unfettered British engagement in the Indo-Pacific; a depth of engagement Germany has so far failed to achieve. Britain’s newfound strategic autonomy adds another layer to Europe’s contributions in Asia. Britain will seek to multiply its security and trade agreements in the Indo-Pacific as it sheds the weight of the EU’s bureaucracy.


London has been far more willing to partner with Washington than its EU neighbors, but France’s actions to deepen its engagement in the Indo-Pacific demonstrate that parallel approaches can be complementary, rather than incoherent. As a country overseeing considerable sovereign territory and EEZ’s through its island territories, France was the first to ratify a comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018. The three tenets of this strategy are as follows:

  • to mitigate the damage to French interests posed by China’s threats to Freedom of Navigation and Beijing’s intimidation tactics against France’s overseas territories;

  • to preserve a strong Franco-U.S. alliance; and

  • to keep France removed, as much as possible, from the Sino-American competition.


    Obviously, the second and third tenets will require exquisite management. France’s strategy underscores the French desire to be seen as an independent actor in the Indo-Pacific; distinct from both EU and British initiatives. The French call for a Canberra-Delhi-Paris axis of cooperation speaks to this. France has also demonstrated willingness to contribute to Freedom of Navigation operations, sending warships through the Taiwan strait, and deploying aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines throughout the region. Nevertheless, France’s core security interests vis-à-vis a free and open Indo-Pacific are, in contrast to the UK, to protect and reassure its own territories and nationals. Signaling France’s commitment to transatlantic unity, upholding the principles of freedom of navigation, and defending core democratic values are only secondary objectives.


    The Biden Administration should welcome and facilitate such engagement by Britain and France. The United States could, for example, advance Britain’s re-engagement by allowing the UK access to U.S. ports in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. With France, the U.S. could expand intelligence sharing and coordination on maritime issues of the South Pacific, coordinating cooperation on fisheries protection, anti-piracy operations, and maritime domain awareness.


    The British and French examples demonstrate both the promise and the limits to Europe’s role in the Indo-Pacific. A few extra European flags sailing through the South China Sea will reinforce the global norm of free and open navigation. And Europe’s economic and political ties across Asia can bolster support for transparency, accountability, and good governance. But European power is insufficient, by itself, to have much influence over China’s conduct.    European nations understand these limits. The challenge for the United States and its European partners is finding ways to tap into Europe’s renewed enthusiasm for engagement across the Indo-Pacific while operating within the confines of the EU’s limited strategic resources.


    The Way Forward: Benefits By Embracing a Diverse Approach


    The nations of Europe should embrace the notion that their future role in the Indo-Pacific region will have both “performative,” and tangible, hard-power dimensions.  European states can bring diverse tools and approaches to the challenges confronting the Indo-Pacific region, with each nation drawing on its own areas of comparative advantage. For some – such as the UK and France – this may include public demonstrations of military capability to underscore Europe’s stake in the maintenance of freedom of navigation and the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes. For others, to include Germany and the Nordic states, the focus may be more on trade, aid, development assistance, and reinforcing global norms of good governance and human rights. An ideal approach will be one with a variable geometry of engagement to suit each members’ areas of comfort and expertise, bypassing EU policy gridlock and liberating individual states from any obligation to embrace a role that is beyond the boundaries of their political commitment or their capabilities.


    Much will depend on the deft deployment of soft power. Indeed, Europe excels in the diffusion of its soft-power and in the depth and durability of its economic reach. Sustainable development, blue economy and experience in technical assistance constitute the most useful exports Europe can make to the Indo-Pacific. Concentrating resources and energy on these sets of exports, as well as leveraging its renown in consortium building and connectivity, both digital and physical, would reinforce Europe’s already strong presence in the region. For example, the European Commission adopted in 2018 its Europe-Asia-Connectivity (EAC) initiative, focused on building rules-based, sustainable and comprehensive links between both sides of Eurasia, demonstrating the EU’s understanding of its normative influence. The EAC comes 25 years after Europe’s initial “New Asia Strategy'' adopted in 1994 and is the first revision to Brussels’s collective interests in Asia.


     With regards to infrastructure, the EU should explore deepening ties with Japan and the ADB, with a focus on high quality development abiding by best environmental and labor practices. European states also have the opportunity to work with China, rather than in competition with China, through the AIIB, using their influence to insist upon sustainable, high-quality, transparent investments.  


    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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