Think Tank (6/2020)
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Europe in the Indo-Pacific: Middle Power Patchwork or a Common European Strategy?
10 Nov 2020

On 10 November 2020, the Centre for Multilateralism Studies (CMS), RSIS, hosted a panel webinar on European initiatives and involvement in the Indo-Pacific. Despite the Indo-Pacific being a region of significant interest to Europe, the panellists noted that expectations for greater hard-power initiatives, and commitments squarely in favour of either the US or China, may need to be tempered.

In the case of France, Dr Eric Frécon, Adjunct Fellow at the French Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia, highlighted the country’s capacity for and growing momentum vis-à-vis greater involvement in the Indo-Pacific, such as appointing a new Indo-Pacific ambassador. Nonetheless, France’s involvement will likely remain cautious. Though it may participate in minilateralism with American allies, such as India and Australia, it is unlikely to join the Quad.

As regards Germany, Dr Frederick Kliem, CMS Visiting Fellow, similarly noted that the country’s Indo-Pacific “guidelines” reflected prudence.  While there were some changes, including expansions on existing German cooperation with Indo-Pacific countries, the focus was mostly on continuity to enable the scaling up of this Indo-Pacific framework to the European Union (EU) level.

Meanwhile, Dr Ian Storey, Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, spoke on the UK’s desire to forge closer ties with the region, considering Brexit. Still, the UK had yet to devise an Indo-Pacific strategy or guidelines. While open to trilateral military interoperability between the US, UK and Japan, public support and a lack of funding for utilising Japanese naval bases were stumbling blocks to greater hard-power cooperation.

Mr Christian Rieck, Assistant Professor and Chair of War Studies at Potsdam University, added that the EU was capable of playing a greater role in the region, although an EU-wide Indo-Pacific strategy would be subject to aligned interests between the EU member states. This convergence was not yet apparent.

Cautious approaches notwithstanding, there was enthusiasm from Europe in upholding multilateralism within the region. With the incoming Biden administration, neither the substance nor tenor of current European Indo-Pacific approaches was likely to change significantly. For Europe, China was not a strategic threat but simply not a like-minded strategic partner. Nonetheless, a Biden administration could see Europe beefing up collaborative efforts with the US on trade and climate change multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific — issues where European countries can contribute significantly to the liberal rules-based order.

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