EU Indo-Pacific Strategy: An ambiguous signal to China

Wow is a plan called to curb China’s drive for power if one is not looking for an open conflict with Beijing? Indo-Pacific strategy. This Tuesday, the EU Commission will publish a 19-page communication that Foreign Affairs Commissioner Josep Borrell has drawn up over the past few weeks. By taking the region as broadly as possible, China only appears as a part – and one can talk a lot about closer cooperation with other countries. This leads to ambiguous sentences like the one at the beginning of the communication: “The EU intends to increase its engagement with the region in order to create partnerships that strengthen the rules-based international order and address global challenges.”

Thomas Gutschker

Political correspondent for the European Union, NATO and the Benelux countries based in Brussels.

This not only applies to health, climate and migration – topics that Brussels likes to talk about and often – but also to security. The foreign ministers had already expressed “the importance of a significant European naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region”. The sentence made one sit up and take notice. In the new strategy, Borrell spelled out what that meant. In order to promote a regional rule-based security architecture, the EU wants to create “safe maritime traffic connections” in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, strengthen the capabilities of its partners and “expand their naval presence in the Indo-Pacific”.

“More common military exercises” with the partners

Translated, this means: The EU wants to do everything to militarily secure the shipping connection through the South China Sea, through which thirty percent of European trade with Asia is carried out. China claims 80 percent of this maritime zone, which the other neighboring countries do not recognize and which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague declared illegal in 2016 by invoking the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing doesn’t care, is instead expanding its own naval bases and is becoming increasingly aggressive.

Borrell points out that the Europeans have already shown the flag with two missions in the Indian Ocean, with the anti-piracy mission Atalanta off the Somali coast and with the new training mission in Mozambique. Regional partner countries such as Japan, Pakistan and India also participate in Atalanta. That could be built on. The EU, so it says in its communication, wants to carry out “more joint military exercises” with its partners and call at their ports more often “in order to fight piracy and protect the freedom of navigation”. Your partners should also be specifically trained for this. The model is a project to protect the sea routes off the East African coast, which is being extended “into the southern Pacific” – that is, into the marine region claimed by China.

Beijing reacted moderately to the initial announcement

The plan goes even further: the EU even wants to define “marine areas of interest” and jointly patrol them with regional partners. She has been testing how to do this in the Gulf of Guinea since the beginning of this year. There, off the West African coast, armed attacks on ships have risen sharply and drugs are being smuggled into Europe. EU member states such as France, Italy and Spain are regularly present with their own naval ships and reconnaissance aircraft. They are now networking within the framework of the so-called “coordinated maritime presence” and are using an electronic monitoring platform that has been developed by the European Defense Agency (MARSUR).

In the South China Sea, too, the Europeans are showing an increasing presence. In the first half of this year, France sent a hunting submarine, an amphibious assault ship and a frigate into disputed waters. The German frigate Bayern set sail at the beginning of August and will also cross the region claimed by China. In future, such national missions are to be coordinated via the European platform and networked with partners from the region. That would also strengthen the EU vis-à-vis NATO, which China classifies as a “systemic challenge”, but wants to limit itself as a military alliance to the Atlantic.

A senior EU official describes the European approach as follows: “We do not want to enter into open confrontation, but at the same time make it clear that we are not simply giving China free rein.” When the EU foreign ministers first suggested this in April, Beijing reacted critically but moderate. In Brussels, this was interpreted as a sign that China did not want an escalation like the one with the United States. Of course, it remains to be seen how the reaction will be when it is no longer just about the plan, but about its implementation.

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