Continental Drift: European Interests Tilting the Balance in the Indo-Pacific

Tennyson Dearing | Pacific Fellow

What’s in a name? For the Indo-Pacific, it would seem quite a lot. No longer just a reference to the ‘confluence of two seas’ (if it ever was to begin with); now, first and foremost, ‘Indo-Pacific’ is a statement of strategic competition. For Washington, it means enabling the rules-based order. In Beijing, it’s a US-led strategy aimed at China’s containment. More than a geographical region, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is a geopolitical construct with the political overtones to match.


But whatever the nomenclature, it’s also a space of increasing significance, and if it’s in this ‘Indo-Pacific’ that tomorrow’s international order will be decided; then Europe is taking a greater role in shaping it.

When Brendan Berne, Australia’s then-ambassador to France, met Emmanuel Macron for the first time in late 2017, Macron’s conversation opener took him by surprise: ‘we’re with you in the South Pacific, we won’t leave you alone down there’. Six months later, in 2018, Macron was in Sydney laying out France’s new Indo-Pacific strategy to promote a rules-based, multipolar order.


The Australian diplomat’s surprise more likely stemmed from Macron’s candour than his policy ambitions. After all, France is a resident actor with already-deep ties to the region; 1.5 million citizens and 93 per cent of France’s exclusive economic zone are in the Pacific and Indian oceans.


What’s more surprising is that France’s move has precipitated other European reorientations. In late 2020, both Germany and the Netherlands published their own Indo-Pacific strategies, and though the UK has left the EU, the Integrated Review published on March 16 confirmed that there too, foreign policy will be concentrated ‘east of Suez’.


Even an EU strategy is said to be underway after the French, German and Dutch governments voiced the need for coordination (but with diverging interests in Brussels, a common European stance will be hard-fought).


These are momentous developments considering that only a year ago, most European states were hesitant even to utter the term ‘Indo-Pacific’. Certainly, it speaks to what is usually described as the ‘shifting centre of gravity’ in world politics, and while not quite a pivot toward that centre, it looks like the broad strokes of a European ‘tilt’.


Yet after an absence of active Euro engagement (except for France) since post-war decolonisation, why the sudden attention? To some degree, it’s all about economics. Asia accounted for over 60 per cent of global economic growth between 2018-19, and two-thirds of the world’s seaborne trade passes through the Indo-Pacific. Europe has a role to play in these markets, and with an eye for diversification, it’s also a chance to address overdependence on China and ‘enlarge the shopping basket’.


But more than just strengthening economic ties, European engagement is about ensuring those ties’ security, and for that matter, ensuring the West’s security. At their heart, the new strategy papers are designed to embed rules and norms in the region; according to Germany’s policy guidelines, it’s ‘not the law of the strong that must prevail, but the strength of the law’. And Germany, for its part, seems prepared to enforce it.


France is also expanding its defence cooperation with partners like Australia and Indonesia, and the UK now has a persistent regional naval presence (in 2018 the Royal Navy joined the US Navy as the only forces to have conducted freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea). The commitments are powerful statements in recognition of the need to protect the ‘marine global commons’, particularly for Germany, whose foreign policy has been defined by pacifism since WWII.


Whether this makes the region’s future any more certain isn’t clear. It’s not likely that Europe would (or could) replace the US as the Indo-Pacific’s security provider. But that’s not to say European influence won’t mean calmer waters either. Together with the UK, Western Europe is often viewed as the seat of liberal democratic values. An EU strategy would bring a legitimate, balancing force to the highly contested space.


However, European security ambitions are also leaving resident states feeling more insecure. In 2018, Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said that ‘we are again seeing invasion and interest in the form of strategic manipulation’. The Netherlands hit the nail on the head when it called for the Indo-Pacific not to become a ‘plaything between the Great Powers’.


For European engagement to remain credible, it must also be responsible. What this means, in part, and at least for the Pacific, is that care should be taken to not privilege the ‘Indo’ over the ‘Pacific’—something Samoan Prime Minister Malielegaoi warned of and which is increasingly relevant today. It also means acknowledging the integrity of Pacific leadership and promoting collective sovereignty through the Blue Pacific narrative.


Surely, these are striking moves from Europe, with perhaps even stronger commitment on the horizon. A renewed and more assertive European engagement could go far to ensure the Indo-Pacific’s stability, but any addition to the strategic architecture must be done responsibly.


Tennyson Dearing is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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