Will Europe’s emerging presence in the Indo-Pacific last?
Author: Liselotte Odgaard, Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies
Russia’s willingness to use force in Europe creates incentives for a division of labor between Europe and the United States. This allows Europe to focus on deterring challenges on NATO’s eastern and northern flanks, while the United States focuses on preventing Beijing from turning the Indo-Pacific into a sphere of Chinese influence.
The recent United States Indo-Pacific Strategy recognizes the strategic value of an increasing role for the European Union in the region. Indo-Pacific powers such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore are also interested in a European defense presence, sharing the reluctance to choose sides between Washington and Beijing.
But will Europe be able to keep its promises intention increase its Indo-Pacific engagement?
Following the meetings of NATO foreign ministers, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has announced that the alliance’s next strategic concept will take into account how China’s growing influence and coercive policies affect the security of member states. But unlike Russia, he does not commit to declaring China a threat encompassed by the collective security guarantees of the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.
The resistance of key members such as France and Germany against defining China as a threat on par with Russia indicates that The NATO Process for Confronting China will focus on challenges in cyber and outer space. NATO already has an array of instruments to deal with cyber and space challenges from adversaries such as Russia and Iran, which can be extended to China. The likelihood that NATO’s role in China will be limited means that all eyes are on the EU’s ability to take on China not just as a partner, but also as a competitor.
The European Union has long had a global civilian presence based on its status as a global economic power and has built strategic partnerships with the same Indo-Pacific partners as the United States. But can the European Union translate its strong regional presence into a significant security and defense presence, as is necessary to be a key geopolitical actor in an increasingly militarized region?
France has played a leading role in the development of a European defense presence in the Indo-Pacific, with the United Kingdom as its most important partner. Since 2016, France has mobilized for a European presence with annual rotating forces that have expanded with the participation of a growing number of countries. Rather than an overt deterrence from China, the effort is more broadly aimed at protecting a rules-based regional security architecture through Cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners.
the German frigate Bayern was deployed to the Indo-Pacific from August 2021 to February 2022 to conduct freedom of navigation and exercise operations with the Australian, Singaporean, Japanese and United States navies. Germany’s contribution was seen as a key decision to forge Franco-German unity on building a permanent and effective European military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
The UK also has delivered significant contributions to the defense of the Indo-Pacific, deploying a carrier battle group in 2021 and two warships definitely in 2022.
But in light of Brexit and the AUKUS agreement, the UK is no longer an integral part of a European presence. On the contrary, the British presence signals London’s support for a confrontational military deterrence strategy towards China, as approved in Washington. And Russia remains the main internal security threat to the UK, which is committed to increase its military presence in the arctic.
In France, although Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election of April 24, 2022, growth Economic inequality and the centre-periphery divide will make it difficult to justify France should continue to shoulder most of the burden of a presence in the Indo-Pacific. And although Germany’s commitment to increase defense spending of more than 2% of GDP per year is seen as a sea change in Berlin’s military role in Europe, it is debatable whether this will result in a major contribution to a European defense presence in the Indo-Pacific.
These warnings about Europe’s future role as an important geopolitical player do not mean that Europe should stop expanding its regional security role. Indeed, the European Union is increasing its contributions to Indo-Pacific security as promised in its Strategy 2021. A good example is the “Enhancing Security Cooperation in Asia and with Asia” project aimed at enhancing security cooperation with Asian partner countries, encompassing efforts to integrate unmanned systems into operations and cooperation in building the capabilities of Indo-Pacific navies and coast guards. If NATO agrees to address Chinese challenges in the maritime domain, it is likely to build on these EU efforts.
More European Union member states need to shoulder more of the burden of Indo-Pacific security to put it on a more secure footing. Germany, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and the Nordic countries can provide assets and labor on a more permanent basis. A wider effort is needed to demonstrate that Europe’s defensive presence in the Indo-Pacific is not a paper tiger, but a long-term one.
Liselotte Odgaard is a professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies and a nonresident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Washington, D.C.