A military officer holds a European Union flag in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

In German, the word Zeitenwende means something along the lines of “the start of an era.”

That is what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz heralded last weekend when he announced his country will considerably increase its defense spending in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which commentators say has sparked a security revolution across Europe. 

The normally pacifist German government has vowed to finally contribute more than 2% of GDP spending on defense, as is demanded of NATO members, and will invest US$113 billion through a special fund to immediately modernize the country’s armed forces. 

On top of that, it will now also send weapons to Ukraine, whereas before the war started it was criticized for only contributing helmets to the country’s threatened military. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “turning point in the history of our continent”, Scholz stated. “It is clear we will need to invest significantly more in the security of our country to defend our freedom and our democracy.”

Given the vast size of Germany’s economy relative to its neighbors, spending more than 2% of GDP on defense will make its military the largest in Europe, surpassing Britain and France’s. Almost a week into the war, the military landscape across Europe, not just Germany, has already undergone monumental changes, most of which will be permanent.  

In response to the first invasion of a European country since the 1940s, the European Union (EU) announced that it will purchase and send $500 million worth of arms and other aid to Ukraine, the first time the bloc has ever sent lethal munitions to a besieged country.

That reportedly includes the provision of well-needed fighter jets for Ukraine’s military. “This is a watershed moment,” said the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen sees a ‘watershed moment.’ Image: Facebook

By Monday evening, most European airspace had been closed to Russian aircraft. The yachts of Russian oligarchs were banned from European ports.

Major sanctions — including banning Russian banks from SWIFT, the international payment messaging system — have been imposed by the US and European states, including Switzerland, which has seemingly ended its historic neutralist position on global conflicts. 

Sweden and Finland appear more likely than ever to join NATO, the West’s mutual defense alliance, which now appears more relevant than any time since the end of the Cold War. For many, the continent is awoken from its naivete about the dangers posed by autocratic regimes like Russia’s. 

“What we are clearly seeing right now is a change in the way the Europeans look at their own defense and a willingness to take it in their own hands with a determination unseen before in most European countries. This is in itself a major change,” says Frédéric Grare, a senior policy fellow with the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

“What the Ukraine crisis tells us is that when European interests are directly threatened, European determination is there,” he added. 

Up for debate is whether this transformation on security is only a reflection of European desires to protect themselves in their own backyard, or, instead, whether they could now bid to play a more involved role in security affairs across the globe, including in tense regions like the Indo-Pacific. 

European states and the EU itself are usually not considered important security players in the Indo-Pacific, where the US and China are locked in a contest for influence and supremacy.

Only 0.8% of respondents thought the EU has the most political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia, according to the recently-published State of Southeast Asia survey published by Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. 

The EU lost some military weight after Britain — one of the continent’s two main security powers, along with France — left the bloc. That was compounded last year when Washington seemingly went behind the back of France, its oldest ally, to secure a nuclear submarine and defense pact with Australia and the UK, the AUKUS arrangement. 

However, Germany, France and the Netherlands have now all published their own Indo-Pacific strategy papers, while the EU launched its own policy last September. 

German crew waves from aboard the frigate “Bayern”, which spent seven months in the sea area between the Horn of Africa, Australia and Japan. Photo: Sina Schuldt / dpa via AFP

In February, the German Navy frigate Bayern made its way home after a six-month deployment to the Indo-Pacific, where it engaged in freedom of navigation exercises in the contested South China Sea.

France and Britain have also stepped up their security activity in the Indo-Pacific. The Ukraine crisis has shown that the UK, even outside of the EU, can still cooperate militarily with its member states.  

Earlier this month, France signed a deal to sell 42 Rafale fighter jets to Indonesia. Cyber-security relations between the EU and Japan are being stepped up. And cooperation between the Europeans and Taiwan was strengthened last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has done more to “galvanize the West and renew its sense of political mission in seven days than the previous ten years of NATO summits and think tank discussions,” said Bill Hayton, associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House. 

“Before the invasion, European governments could sit on the fence, avoid difficult decisions and hope that the EU’s weight in international trade would spread peace and stability. This is no longer tenable,” he added. 

Various European politicians in recent days have noted that the continental powers cannot project their security ambitions further afield until they get their own house in order, meaning that they can adequately protect European countries from Russian aggression. 

Although Europe’s first focus will be Ukraine and Russia, “this new sense of mission will stimulate a global sense of concern about the risks to global stability,” Hayton said. 

“China is being seen as, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, actively conniving in a scheme to dismantle the European security system. This will generate new interest in stability in the Indo-Pacific,” he added. 

European attitudes towards Beijing are hardening. European politicians who spoke to Asia Times off-the-record expressed anger towards what they see as the Chinese government’s selfish desire not to take sides in the Ukraine crisis, as well as Beijing’s apparent lack of desire to help mediate a solution to the crisis in previous months when Moscow mounted troops on the Ukraine border.  

A high-stakes investment accord between Beijing and Europe that took seven years to negotiate is now in question amid EU concerns over human rights in China. Photo: Xinhua

One European parliamentarian said the threat to Europe is Russia today and China tomorrow. A British diplomat described it as “revolutionary” that there is now far greater consensus amongst European capitals — perhaps “the strongest since the Cold War” — for the continent’s power to be projected at home and abroad. 

China cannot be removed from the ongoing war in Ukraine, analysts say, however much Beijing wants to avoid engaging in the crisis. “Ukraine is already also an Indo-Pacific crisis,” said Grare. 

Many European politicians have voiced their agreement with US President Joe Biden, who on Tuesday used his State of the Union address to present the Ukraine crisis as part of a wider conflict between democracies and autocracies. 

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” he stated.  

In a speech also on Tuesday, von der Leyen, the European Commission president, called the ongoing war in Ukraine “a moment of truth for Europe.” 

“This is a clash between the rule of law and the rule of the gun; between democracies and autocracies; between a rules-based order and a world of naked aggression. How we respond today to what Russia is doing will determine the future of the international system,” she said. 

“We must show the power that lies in our democracies; we must show the power of people that choose their independent paths, freely and democratically. This is our show of force.”

Much of this uncompromising talk may be hubris. After years of being racked by disunity and internal difficulties, as well as major disruptions in relations with the US caused by the Donald Trump presidency, there is a newfound and palpable sense of purpose and zeal among European leaders. 

Whether the optimism is dented by the intensifying and likely far more violent Russian attacks in Ukraine in the coming days awaits to be seen. Confidence might turn to anguish if Russia’s war on Ukraine turns far more bloody and Europe’s NATO states are unable to offer viable physical assistance.

But there doesn’t appear any way back to the status quo ante, when European leaders waived off warnings about the dangers posed by authoritarian Russia and China, and most seemingly wanted to take a neutralist position in the intensifying US-China rivalry. 

It is unclear whether a planned EU summit with China, expected to take place on April 1, will be postponed in light of the Ukraine war. And more will be known about European defense interests with the publication of important strategy papers in the coming weeks. 

Berlin is currently working on a new National Security Strategy, as well as an updated plan on China. The EU was expected this month to publish its “Strategic Compass”, a policy designed to set out how the bloc acts in an “era of increasing strategic competition.” 

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrellin a file photo from 2019. Photo: AFP / Dursun Aydemir / Anadolu Agency

It is designed, says Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, to prevent the major risk the EU is facing: “that of ‘strategic shrinkage’, or the risk of being always principled but seldom relevant. That is why it defines a high ambition and presents concrete means to make this ambition a reality.”

“Europe cannot afford to be a bystander in a hyper-competitive world,” he added. For many European leaders and policymakers that means becoming more involved in Indo-Pacific security affairs. 

“In recent years, the region has grown in economic and political significance,” said a German Foreign Office statement from mid-February, ahead of the Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific in Paris, an event overshadowed by Russia’s pre-invasion buildup around Ukraine.  

“It is home to the world’s fastest-growing economies, and it produces 60% of global CO2 emissions. At the same time, it is the major stage on which China and the United States fight out their increasing superpower rivalry.”

Germany and the EU, it added, “are convinced…that stability in that region is also crucial for security and prosperity in Europe.” The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy also states that tensions in the Taiwan Strait “may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity.” 

According to Grare, if Europeans feel that their interests are at stake in the Indo-Pacific, they may be willing to intervene more in the coming years. 

“The perception of Asia as a potential source of security threats is a relatively new phenomenon in Europe and not fully integrated by all, but certainly progressing everywhere in the continent,” he said.