Cadets on board of the French amphibious assault helicopter carrier Tonnerre, prepare to dock at Cochin Port, in Kochi, India, March 30, 2021. Photo: AFP/Arun Sankar

MANILA – In a muscular expression of the European Union’s pivot to Asia, the regional bloc released its own Indo-Pacific Strategy policy paper earlier this month, an unprecedented declaration that promises to put the EU at certain loggerheads with China.

The 10-page strategy document, innocuously titled “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, covers a wide range of potential bilateral cooperation areas with regional players, ranging from trade, investment and climate change to battling the Covid-19 pandemic, transnational terrorism and disinformation.  

The timing and the language of the paper, however, show that rising concerns over China’s geopolitical assertiveness are at the heart of the EU’s new strategic recalibration.

Significantly, the strategy paper was released just weeks after the regional bloc imposed unprecedented collective sanctions against China over its mass persecution of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region.

The EU’s choice of the term “Indo-Pacific” — a geopolitical catchphrase that was popularized by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and gained global currency under the anti-China Trump administration — rather than the more traditional “Asia-Pacific” is also telling.

Historically, the EU’s primary geopolitical focus has been in its near neighborhood, namely post-Soviet regions of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as trans-Atlantic relations with the US.

By and large, the EU viewed China, and the Asian region more broadly, through the prism of trade and investment. In fact, a number of European countries exported key dual-use technology, which allowed China to develop, among others, advanced Type-039 Song-class submarines

In particular, Germany, the region’s economic powerhouse, has served as a major advocate for constructive engagement with Beijing through the so-called “change through trade” (Wandel durch Handel) policy.

This economics-driven strategy culminated in the much-vaunted EU-China investment agreement signed last year, as the Asian powerhouse became the regional bloc’s largest trading partner.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a contract signing ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, July 5, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Fabrizio Bensch
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a contract signing ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, July 5, 2017. Photo: Agencies

Growing economic interdependence, however, didn’t create the geopolitical harmony that Beijing and the German business community had likely hoped for. If anything, recent years have seen a major overhaul in bilateral relations amid growing disagreements on a wide range of issues, from human rights and democracy to trade and maritime security.

In 2019, the EU upped the ante by openly describing China as a “systemic rival.” In a much-publicized strategic communication that outlined the regional bloc’s 10-point recommendations in dealing with a rising China, the EU described the Asian superpower as “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”

In a visible departure from its more trade-driven diplomacy, the European Commission also criticized certain member states, including Italy, for supporting China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has been criticized for its alleged “debt trap” diplomacy and lack of compliance with prevailing good governance standards in infrastructure development.

“There is a growing appreciation in Europe that the balance of challenges and opportunities presented by China has shifted. In the last decade, China’s economic power and political influence have grown with unprecedented scale and speed, reflecting its ambitions to become a leading global power,” the EU communication said.

The same year, the EU also signed a major defense deal, also known as the Framework Participation Agreement, with one of China’s main maritime rivals in the South China Sea, Vietnam. The regional bloc has also been exploring tighter defense cooperation with other key regional players, including South Korea and Australia.

Back then, the Chinese Mission to the EU tried to downplay any potential differences with the regional bloc. “It is our hope that the EU could view China’s development and fresh efforts to promote reform and opening-up in an objective, reasonable and fair light,” the Chinese envoy to Brussels said at the time.

The EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy paper this month, however, makes it clear that Europe is determined to deepen its influence in the region.

Adopted by all the 27 EU member states’ foreign ministers, the EU Council’s policy paper reflects the regional bloc’s “recognition of the growing importance of the region and its commitment to reinforcing its role in cooperation with its partners there.”  

A French naval officer in front of the Vendémiaire frigate. Photo: Twitter

The Indo-Pacific, the world’s fastest-growing region, accounts for up to half the world’s population and accounts for 40% of global GDP. China’s rising assertiveness abroad and growing repression at home, however, is also a major driving force behind Europe’s pivot to the region.

Thomas Gnocchi, head of the EU Office to China’s special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, emphasized the importance of the new strategy paper by stating “we have strong stakes in the region.”

“[I]t’s fairly clear that on human rights, we don’t have a common vision on how to see this issue”, the EU representative said, underscoring growing disagreements with China on key issues.

Over the weekend, the EU condemned China’s actions against the Philippines during the month-long Whitsun Reef standoff, where an armada of Chinese militia vessels surrounded Philippine-occupied land features in the Spratly island chain.

“Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region,” said the regional bloc, while accusing China of engaging in “unilateral actions that could undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order.”

Major European powers are also pitching in. Earlier, EU member states France, Germany and the Netherlands released their own respective “Indo-Pacific” strategy papers, underscoring their growing interest in becoming pivotal players in the world’s most dynamic region.

Last year, the three major European powers of France, Germany and Britain filed an unprecedented joint note verbale at the United Nations, where they openly criticized China for violating prevailing international law, especially through its aggressive actions in adjacent waters such as the South China Sea.

Perturbed by Beijing’s perceived maritime expansionism, France has conducted regular naval patrols in the Indo-Pacific, where it maintains several territories and is rapidly cultivating defense ties with China’s rivals such as India and Australia.

This photo taken by the Philippine Coast Guard shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Weeks ahead of the EU’s statement on the Whitsun Reef, French Ambassador to Manila Michele Boccoz expressed shared Franco-German concerns over China’s growing maritime assertiveness.

Germany and France are concerned about the most recent developments in the #SouthChinaSea which have created tensions between neighboring countries. We call to refrain from measures which endanger peace, stability, and security in the #IndoPacific,” Boccoz tweeted.

For the first time in two decades, Germany is also set to deploy a warship across the Indo-Pacific in the coming months. Following “two plus two” virtual meetings between German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and their Japanese counterparts earlier this month, Berlin agreed to deploy a German frigate to East Asia and the Western Pacific by August.

On its return journey, the German frigate Bayern is expected to pass through the hotly contested South China Sea in a demonstration of support for upholding a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.  Japan has also invited Germany to take part in joint naval drills in the area, with both France and Britain having already taken part in similar multilateral naval operations in recent years.  

Meanwhile, post-Brexit Britain is expected to follow suit by deploying its largest-ever naval fleet in recent memory, led by its newly-minted 65,000 tonne aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, as early as next month.

Crucially, the British fleet will be accompanied by warships from other like-minded Indo-Pacific powers, namely The US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS The Sullivans and the Dutch Navy’s frigate HNLMS Evertse during the months-long journey, which will cover up to 40 nations across the region in a clear show of united force aimed at least in part at China.