Calls for Europe to define its sovereign interests in Asia have been flourishing amid China’s rise. The pandemic laid bare the absolute necessity of clarifying how a geopolitical Europe was to act in Asia. Though in its initial phase, the coronavirus affected EU member states in different scales and to different extents, they almost all were confounded by their heavy reliance on goods and services from third countries. This reliance undermined Europe’s capacity to respond autonomously. The objective here is not to establish a European autarky but for the European Union to decide whom it wants to partner with as a priority.
Indeed, the EU remains in an ambivalent position and approach to its relationship to China. Deemed a systemic rival in 2019, China remains a major trade partner for the EU: The justification for the signature of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) at the end of 2020. However, the signals from China on the ground is that its market does not seem likely to become more open. Beijing is focusing its energy on fostering national industrial champions in order to strengthen its self-reliance: A self-declared goal by Xi Jinping. Consequently, the EU needs to think seriously about expanding its economic partnerships in Asia, beyond China. This EU paradigm shift will help develop new markets, especially allowing for the demand for European business in the Indo-Pacific region to increase, notably in the health sector.
In building its strategic sovereignty, the EU can decide to intensify cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, both bilaterally with major partners, namely Australia, Japan and India and Southeast Asian countries, as well as invest substantially more time and energy in multilateralism and regional organisations. This will need to be a coordinated and comprehensive approach leading to the implementation of the EU-Asia connectivity strategy, revolving around infrastructure development (digital and traditional), fight against climate change and for the protection of biodiversity, fostering health cooperation, ensuring maritime security and the development of business ties. All priorities laid out in the communiqué of the latest EU-India summit, held virtually in July 2020.
The communiqué starts with the following sentence “The leaders decided to strengthen the EU-India Strategic Partnership, based on shared principles and values of democracy, freedom, rule of law, and respect for human rights, aiming at delivering concrete benefits for the people in the EU and India”.
Until these recent developments, it was no secret that the EU-India relationship was underperforming, as the two partners were attempting to avoid one another. The FTA negotiations deadlock impended for the rest of the relationship—especially the security dimension—to fully flourish. But, as the region is riven with strife geopolitical rivalries, the time has come to assert that European strategic sovereignty in Asia can only translate in prioritising partnerships that represent its values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights.
The European Parliament recently commissioned and discussed a report on connectivity and EU-Asia relations that “highlights the fundamental role that connectivity plays in the geopolitical relations of the EU and its Member States and underlines the fact that connectivity, as a fundamental orientation of the European Union, is deeply ingrained in the EU’s approach to domestic and international challenges”.
Connectivity is the comprehensive and holistic answer to limiting Europe’s dependencies in Asia and increasing its capacity to act. As mentioned above, for this strategy to work, the EU will have to rely upon major partners such as Australia, Japan and India to implement the different pillars constituting connectivity: Infrastructure development (digital and traditional), fight against climate change, ensuring maritime security and trade development. India plays a special role here as it is a player on all these fronts, though the trade dimension may have been, in the past, the one that hindered the advent of a true EU-India strategic partnership.
The European Parliament report explicitly advocates for the elaboration of an EU-wide Indo-Pacific strategy that would be part of the connectivity agenda and as such would tackle cooperation with partners in the region in the realm of military-to-military exchanges and one that “believes that openness, prosperity, inclusiveness, sustainability, transparency, reciprocity and viability should be guiding principles in the cooperation with the Indo-Pacific region”.
This entails for the EU to acknowledge the transformation these partners have undergone in the last years of China’s rise and – until recently – the simultaneous US withdrawal from the international stage. Japan has endorsed a greater role in transforming the region’s trade and technology architecture, while invoking the Indo-Pacific concept more and more as an essential goal in its foreign and security policy. India has moved away from its non-aligned position and is endorsing a new multi-alignment strategy consisting in building strong partnerships with developed economies to pursue its geopolitical goals and strengthen its military presence in the region. As for Australia, ever since it spearheaded the campaign calling for an independent inquiry into the source and propagation of the coronavirus and banned Huawei from its 5G infrastructure development plants, it has fell victim to Chinese economic coercion, namely measures to restrict Australian imports, including levying new tariffs and imposing bans that severely hit the Australian economy.
While this context should not be the main justification for the development of an EU-wide connectivity strategy in the Indo-Pacific, it does provide solid grounds for the EU to embody an alternative path to its Indo-Pacific partners, as well as the opportunity to lay the foundation for a renewed transatlantic partnership in the region.
Cooperation - and competition – on global health has become a central element of the current geopolitical environment and of the EU’s engagement with Asia. The realisation of the Union’s dependency came with the subsequent realisation of the need to mitigate said dependency. Hence, as the “pharmacy of the world”, India has the means to play a significant role in becoming a manufacturing hub in the field of health. India’s ambassador to the EU recently reiterated New Delhi’s seriousness in becoming an alternative to China.
The COVID crisis has provided an opportunity for European governments and the private sector actors in health to review and adjust their value chains for greater health sovereignty. In fact, increasing supply security of critical health goods could go hand in hand with a general review of supply chains that aims to increase protection from economic coercion more broadly, which is where the Indo-Pacific dimension could help step up the EU-India partnership. The pandemic has been a witness of a convergence between the European and Indian agendas on global health cooperation and given India’s extensive capacity to produce non-mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, it could be a destination of choice for the EU to mass-produce it. One option could be for the EU and India to reach an agreement that Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-GSK, which both have plants in India, increase their manufacturing capacities there. These could also be used in the COVAX initiative for ensuring the equitable access to the vaccine to all, especially in the developing world. The Indo-Pacific dimension could enable the EU and India to include ASEAN countries, such as Vietnam, to play a critical manufacturing role too.
In October 2020, EU member states agreed on conditions to allow countries outside the EU to participate in joint defence projects, namely, to provide access to the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). They will be accepted if their projects have “substantial added value” and are in line with EU values.
Amid the pandemic, third country participation could translate into improving preparedness for future crises. As a key security provider in Asia and one that entertains defence cooperation with several EU member states, it could constitute an interesting applicant as a third country participant in PESCO, especially when it comes to maritime security. Indeed, India had increased its engagement with neighbouring countries before the pandemic by providing medical equipment and military assistance.
Such an experiment would demonstrate that third country participation in PESCO can go beyond the more traditional partners the EU would go to for defence cooperation and could open new avenues to deepen the strategic partnership, all the while asserting the reality of an EU-India-Indo-Pacific security triangle.
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