Event ReportsPublished on Sep 06, 2021
Partnership for a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific

The 21st century has seen the Indo-Pacific emerge as one of the key domains. For the first time in 200 years, Asia’s Purchasing Power Parity (PPP)-based GDP is now bigger than the rest of the world. This brings with it a different set of challenges as well. The Asian institutions are not necessarily geared to bear this huge responsibility yet. It is politically weaker in this regard when compared to institutions in Europe. Alongside economic growth, there has been rise of loud politics, challenge to some of the multilateral institutions, arrangements, and assumptions of the past. Against this backdrop, the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi in partnership with the Bled Strategic Forum 2021 on 2 September 2021 organised a panel on ‘Partnership for a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific’.

Ministerial Panel

This panel was moderated by ORF President, Dr. Samir Saran and the panel comprised of H.E. Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, Minister for External Affairs of India; H.E. Dr Anže Logar, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Slovenia; Hon. Ababu Namwamba, Chief Administrative Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kenya; H.E. Dr Augusto Santos Silva, Minister of State and of Foreign Affairs of Portugal.

The EU and the Indo-Pacific

The European Union (EU) has undergone a dramatic change with regard to views and importance of the Indo-Pacific. Even the current situation in Afghanistan shows how important the EU’s outreach would be and that the EU should be more invested in developing partnerships in the region. India is the natural interlocutor in the region and will remain so in the coming decades as well. There is a desire from both the Indian and the European side for rapprochement and cooperation in the future. Besides cultivating ties with India and championing the Indo-Pacific, some European countries and even Slovenia are a part of the 16+1 partnership with China; the EU sees China as a strategic competitor and also as a challenge. The question remains as the Indo-Pacific is mainly crafted to deal with the rising China challenge so how does Slovenia and also in some respects the EU hope to manoeuvre its relationship with China on the one hand and with India, Australia, US, Japan on the other?

With EU naval ships making growing forays in the waters of the Indo-Pacific, is a new shift visible in the political thinking of the EU? There is certainly a sharper awareness in Europe of what happens in the Indo-Pacific directly impinges on Europe. The collective interest of everyone lies in the rise of Africa, which will then truly lead to the emergence of a multipolar world.

The Indo-Pacific is a region which offers opportunities for cooperation but is also fraught with many complex security issues that can impact all the stakeholders of the region, and there is a need to, therefore, have a voice on these issues. But given the complex internal divergences within the EU, will the EU as a political actor be comfortable in coming with a degree of consensus and united stand on complex issues like the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, Hong Kong?  In foreign and security policy, there is a unanimity required, which sometimes poses a bottleneck to come up with a bold decision regarding international relations. The EU now presents a stand on broad issues, but when it comes to sensitive issues that decision is left to the member states to deal with it on their own. Consensus and the unanimity rule is a factor that can enforce the European position. There is a moral responsibility for the member states to contribute to a consensus, but currently a few of the member states are not accepting this political responsibility. Sometimes in important issues, declarations cannot be taken as some member states hold back their stand. The veto power should be exercised on issues which put in question national interests. This is a continuing internal debate. In the coming years, there will be variable geography—there will be a common ground in terms of internal market, common values and institutions, and general approaches, but there may be different multilateral formations of states within the EU (some countries forming other groups of political cooperation). In the coming years, Europe will see this evolution in terms of multiple splits in the European integration.

Africa and the Indo-Pacific

The Western Indian Ocean region forms an important focus area in the Indo-Pacific conceptions of the European countries and also India. Therefore, the discussion also reflected on the views and concerns about the Indo-Pacific from the Western Indian Ocean Region purview. How is the Indo-Pacific perceived from the Western Indian Ocean region? Does it appear as an opportunity to engage with new actors or a challenge with the emergence of the Quad and other new partnerships? Kenya is the Indo-Pacific gateway to Africa. This conversation is, therefore, very relevant for Africa, especially the Horn of Africa region. In view of the emerging dynamics, there are certain focus areas for Africa, the first being militarisation in the Red Sea and immediate neighbourhood as a source of increasing threat concern; the second is piracy and transnational crime; and the third issue of concern is ocean pollution, i.e., dumping of toxic waste. The issues can be viewed both as a threat and an opportunity to cooperate with Indo-Pacific countries to find solutions to these issues. The India-EU Connectivity Partnership seeks to extend partnerships with other countries and Kenya would certainly be a potential partner in the future. Will this partnership offer greater agency going ahead alongside with the ongoing infrastructure projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? The India-EU partnership obviously has potential, but still it remains to be seen what joint efforts can grow out of this relationship. Additionally, with the Quad now investing in vaccine diplomacy, supply chain, how is this grouping perceived in Africa? Africa is ready to engage, but there should not be any question of choice, i.e., choosing one partnership over the other. What should be aimed for is a partnership which is mutually beneficial for all engaged and shared prosperity should be the ultimate outcome.

Liberal and rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific

How important is the politics of the Indo-Pacific in ensuring a liberal order? Should EU now aim to emerge as a political actor in the Indo-Pacific to ensure the upholding of the liberal order? The EU through its Indo-Pacific approach aims to reinforce its partnerships and engagements with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and specifically with India. Therefore, the May 2021 leaders meeting between Prime Minister Modi and the all the 27 leaders of the EU is an important step forward. This led to the founding of a new momentum to further cement the growing ties between the two large democracies. The economic domain is being increasingly focused on with the resumption of talks on a Free Trade Agreement. Furthermore, connectivity partnerships are also being pondered upon. The aim is to multiply the interlocutors in this region with the countries who share a liberal democracy model. This growing cooperation with liberal democracies has to focus on three areas—defending national security interests like protecting the Freedom of Navigation; secondly, have the partners by the side during the geostrategic and geoeconomic competition that is brewing in this region, therefore, the connectivity partnership, digital connectivity is all very important; and thirdly, to cooperate in a third country, mutual cooperation with third parties like, for instance, Africa. Therefore, the EU concept of the Indo-Pacific does have a political tone.

The evolving India-EU relations

It was mentioned by India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar that a very important part of India’s foreign policy is to cultivate ties with Europe, and given this, the question arises how exactly does the EU fit in the Indian policy calculus? For a long time, the Indian diplomacy was focused on the larger European national states. The fact that Europe had evolved so much was not reflected in the Indian way of working and thinking. But now the view is changing and the effort has been to engage with all the member states of the EU as EU is a collective identity. The need for a liberal order is now shared beyond the western borders and is not just a western discourse. India and EU do have a lot of convergences and one of them is where Europe stands vis-à-vis Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Especially after 2008, Europe has been much more reticent about voicing its interests beyond their immediate confines. Europe needs to know it has friends in Asia and the larger Indo-Pacific.

COVID-19 has raised some fundamental issues with regard to questions like if the current globalisation model is the correct model or not. The term “strategic autonomy” is now not only heard in India, but also in Europe with an economic overtone. The pandemic has prompted issues of trust and efficiency, resilience and supply chains to the surface, and this has expanded the scope of national security considerations for all states around the world—a move beyond military and intelligent security to other vulnerabilities, the most visible one being the economic one. New debates are thus emerging.

Recent developments have put a strain of multilateral institutions and they are failing to deliver. An important lesson has been learnt post the spread of COVID that more needs to be done together, institutions need to be strengthened. The architecture of the Indo-Pacific does provide an opportunity to answer some of these challenges. The India-EU partnership has an economic, connectivity, value, and political deliverable, especially in the Indo-Pacific that must be availed.

Experts panel

The second section of this discussion saw interventions from practitioners and experts from the region. The speakers of this discussion were Ambassador Atul Keshap, Chargé d’Affaires, United States of America Embassy in New Delhi; Ms Velina Tchakarova, Director, Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy; and Dr Daniel Twining, President, International Republican Institute, with Dr Samir Saran, President, Observer Research Foundation as the moderator

Developments in the Indo-Pacific and the role of the major players

The EU is already threatened by the growing influence of China and Russia. Beijing and Moscow can be seen working together to disrupt the present multilateral structures and creating better conditions for its own notions of multilateralism which goes against the accepted western concept. Beijing and Moscow are already preparing to fill the void that the US is leaving with its withdrawal. Beijing is likely to accommodate the Taliban to fulfil its own objectives of the BRI and the CPEC by connecting Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran and then moving to other parts of Asia and Africa. In the long run, this domination will also come to the Indian Ocean.

The maintenance of a liberal order is what underlines the notion of the Indo-Pacific, but with the recent ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, the entire question of a value-based liberal order has come under scrutiny. Liberal democracies will always want to stick and work together on various issues in the Indo-Pacific. There is an ongoing great power rivalry and the rising authoritarian superpower with a malign vision is a threat to all free societies who desire a free and open world. The greatest danger to free and open societies is posed by autocracies, failed states, and violent extremists.

The Indo-Pacific is an important interest area for the United States. Europe’s growing interest in the Indo-Pacific and India’s biding interest in the Indo-Pacific is being welcomed by the US. The Quad democracies will take the global economy forward and only an upward trajectory in the deliverables of these groupings will be witnessed. This year, with regard to the EU’s relation with the Indo-Pacific and India, has been the best till date. Though the EU decision-making is a slow process, but there are strong signals when it comes to the Indo-Pacific region. Brussels can play a big role in the reconfiguring of the supply chain in the Indo-Pacific. The EU should also contribute as a political actor to the stability of the region in the near future.

This report has been prepared by Premesha Saha, Associate Fellow, Strategic Studies Programme, ORF

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.