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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The US Pivots to Asia. Is Europe Following Suit?

Article by: Christina Keßler with edits by Release Peace

This article is an adaptation of an article by Christina Keßler as part of a publication collaboration with the Foreign & Security Policy section of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. 

A New Catchphrase

‘Indo-Pacific’ has become a buzzword. Whether on the economic, technological, or security issues –analysts never tire of stressing the region’s importance. In recent years, many countries and organisations, including the EU and individual member-states, have adopted new Indo-Pacific strategies. The EU currently identifies seven priority areas as guiding principles for its engagement with the region. These include: sustainable and inclusive prosperity; green transition; ocean governance; digital governance; connectivity; security and defence; and human security.

As tensions are rising across the region, including, among others, in the Taiwan Strait, Red Sea, and South China Sea, the Indo-Pacific is quickly becoming the epicentre of geopolitics and geo-economics. But what does that mean in practice?

The US Pivots to Asia…

Under Obama, the US declared its Pivot to Asia. Looking at it through the lens of economic opportunity, the Obama Administration aspired to focus its efforts on rising Asia and finding areas of cooperation with Beijing. But it also had concerns about the implications of China’s rise and its future role in the international system. In the following years, the Trump administration declared competition with China as the US’ defining foreign policy challenge. Unlike some of Trump’s more controversial policy choices, this stance reflected what had by then become a bipartisan consensus. 

Continuity in US Foreign Policy

The substance of the Biden administration’s policy towards the Indo-Pacific has been marked by continuity. By and large, the current American foreign policy is focused on countering an increasingly assertive China. The Biden administration has strengthened the close web of existing alliances and partnerships in the region and invested in creating new partnerships such as AUKUS. Additionally, Biden has repeatedly stated that US would come to Taiwan’s aid, should China choose to attack the island.

…But What About Europe?

The US has not stopped caring about Europe, however, with its focus on China and the Indo-Pacific, there are fewer resources available to invest in European security. This has become apparent in the debate on Ukraine. While the United States has been Ukraine’s biggest  aid provider, China-sceptic policy advisors argue that Washington should focus on China, and let the Europeans take care of their security themselves. This growing scepticism has also been demonstrated in the Republican Party’s repeated blocking of aid packages for Kyiv.

The EU’s Indo-Pacific Agenda

The EU and the Indo-Pacific are linked through their substantive economic ties. More than one third of European imports come from the Indo-Pacific with the two regions collectively holding around 70 percent of global trade. For some European countries like the UK or France the connection runs even deeper as their overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific are home to their own citizens.

At present, there is little unity among EU member states on what the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’ actually implies or what the geographic scope of the Indo-Pacific entails. Some countries, including France, define the region as spanning from the eastern coast of Africa to the western coast of the Americas. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, view it as stretching from Pakistan to the islands of the Pacific. The remaining definitions cover India-Southeast Asia-South Korea-Japan (including China), as defined by Hungary; or the area between the eastern coast of Africa and the islands of the Pacific, as defined by Denmark and Finland. Nevertheless, despite these diverging definitions, the EU managed to formulate an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2021. Even if it is somewhat of a catch-all agenda for cooperation, the strategy signals that several EU member-states take the concept of Indo-Pacific seriously. This is also exemplified by the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum launched in 2022.

A Transatlantic Approach?

There has been increasing engagement between Americans and Europeans on the region as they have engaged in high-level consultations specifically on the topic since 2021. The EU has also invited the US to the Ministerial Forum and the two held their first-ever joint naval exercise in the Indo-Pacific in 2023. 

One of the most important vehicles for transatlantic cooperation is NATO. In 2019, NATO firstly mentioned China as presenting opportunities and challenges to address. Both Trump and Biden have tried to expand transatlantic co-operation on China, which also shows in NATO’s growing Indo-Pacific agenda. Moreover, the alliance has strengthened collaboration with partners in the region – Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. It is only recently that these have been treated as a grouping, underscoring the importance of the Indo-Pacific to the alliance. The four have been engaged in frequent dialogues and invited to the NATO summits since 2022. 

Finding a Common Ground

Agreeing on a transatlantic Indo-Pacific agenda is not all smooth sailing. Europeans alone already bring in very different perceptions posing a challenge for reaching a consensus between the member-states, let alone finding a common transatlantic line. Some European countries, like Germany, France, and the Netherlands are also wary of being dragged into a conflict between China and the US. This can be seen, for instance, in French President Emmanuel Macron’s rhetoric in 2023 during his visit to Beijing, when he said that Europeans should not get “caught up in crises that are not ours” and must not become “just America’s followers”.

This touches upon the divergences in the US and the EU perceptions of the region. Europeans primarily look at the Indo-Pacific through the lens of economic opportunity, while the US views it through the prism of strategic competition with China. For the US, the Indo-Pacific is viewed as vital to its own security and prosperity, and as a region in which Washington wants to preserve its influence.

Looking Into the Future

Irrespective of who wins the 2024 US presidential election, the country’s focus on the Indo-Pacific is set to continue. To what extent this will imply a shift away from European security depends on who heads the next administration. But even if the Democrats retain the White House, the Europeans might need to take on more responsibility for their security at home.

Europe might also face the question of what role it wants and can assume in the Indo-Pacific. Future developments in the Indo-Pacific will be fundamental to European economic interests and to the preservation of the international system. And Europe now has the chance to actively participate in shaping these developments.

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