A New European Strategy for the Indo-Pacific: Drivers and Constraints

Ahmed Diab | 28 Sep 2020

The major European powers are studying how to intensify their military presence within the framework of a new strategy that adopts tougher stances against China’s "unilateral" moves and naval assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, which extends from East Africa, through East and Southeast Asia, then the South China Sea, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, and Australia.

In this context, Britain has made strategic moves in recent years in the Indo-Pacific (region). It has a vital interest in this corner of the globe, and depends on global trade for its existence. The UK, which in past centuries was an international economic, naval and military power, has made some progress in the region.

At the same time, France has been working for several years to consolidate its presence in the Indo- Pacific, and is the only European country with a sustainable military presence in that region. From the passage of warships in the China Sea to military exercises in Southeast Asia, France is using the military diplomacy card in the Indo-Pacific to protect its interests and contribute to curbing China’s territorial ambitions.

Recently, it was reported that Germany has considered sending warships to support US freedom of navigation operations. By adopting a new strategic doctrine in the Indo-Pacific, Germany may soon become a more active strategic player in East Asia, beyond its historical role.

Features of the "new" European strategy in the Indo-Pacific

1. At the political level:

  • During recent months, the UK has made substantial moves to shift its China policy, first by inviting Hong Kong British Overseas passport holders to apply for permanent residency, and second by excluding Huawei from its 5G networks from 2027 onwards. France has followed the UK’s lead on both accounts, refusing to ratify an extradition treaty with Hong Kong and requiring local operators to stop using Huawei by 2028.[1]
  •  On 2 September 2020, Germany issued a European strategy towards the Indo-Pacific, especially after the failure of Germany’s policy of "Change Through Trade" towards China. This new strategy bears the slogan “Germany – Europe – Asia: shaping the 21st century order together”, and aims to establish the German role in forming a new order based on sound rules and foundations in this region of the world, and avoid establishing a system based on the law of force. This policy also aims at rejecting the one-way absolute economic dependency on China and diversifying economic partnerships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).[2] The German announcement unmistakably signals Europe’s growing reassessment of its approach to China. It will not be long before other European nations follow Germany and France in forging new paths into the Indo-Pacific.[3]
  • On 16 September 2020, the UK, France and Germany also made a presentation to the United Nations (UN) in the form of a note verbale on developments in the South China Sea, after the hyperactivity shown by China with regard to Taiwan, and the military exercises in that region have brought about international attention and raised serious concerns with regard to the developments in the region. The three countries also have extensive business and trade interest in the region, and have trade relations with Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Therefore, increasing tensions in the South China Sea would increase their freight costs as well as insurance costs. This would make their exports expensive and would affect the market dynamics.[4]

2. At the military level:

The EU Maritime Security Strategy explicitly encourages member states to “play a strategic role [at sea] and provide global reach, flexibility and access” for the EU, and to use their armed forces “to support freedom of navigation and” contribute to global governance by deterring, preventing and countering illicit activities”. Two of the member states that possess blue water naval capabilities are currently actively engaged in defence of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, namely France and Britain.

1. France: after taking office in 2012, former French President François Hollande had developed the strategy "Pivot to Asia". He explained that France is also a Pacific country and has strategic interests. Its strategic goal is to strengthen its presence in the region. France is a riparian country with 1.5 million inhabitants of its citizens all over the Indo-Pacific within its five territories, in addition to another 200,000 French citizens located in various countries of the region. Paris also maintains an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of nearly 9 million kilometres in the same area, making it the second largest European EEZ in the world.

Under President Emmanuel Macron, France adopted a proactive strategic posture in the region with an eye on China. France stepped up its strategic engagements across the region, expanding defence and economic ties with like-minded democratic powers in Australia, Japan, India and Southeast Asia. During his visit to Australia in late April 2018, Macron called for building new strategic alliances, including a Franco-Australian-Indian axis, considering that such an axis "would enable dealing with China from a position of "equal partnership", in order to "preserve freedom of navigation and overflight". This axis is not against China, but rather to avoid hegemony".[5]

In August 2018, France carried out an unprecedented air mission in Southeast Asia called "PEGASE", which included three Rafale fighters, an Airbus A400M military transport plane, an Airbus A310 and a refueling plane that took off on a flight from Australia to India, with multiple stopovers in partner countries with the aim of contributing to the strengthening of France’s presence in this region of strategic importance.[6]

In 2019, France issued a regional strategy paper in which it pledged to "consolidate its position as a regional power in the Indo-Pacific region". Paris expanded defence and economic ties with like-minded democracies in Australia, Japan, India and Southeast Asia. France held a high-level tripartite meeting with Australia and India on 9 September 2020, and signed a logistics support agreement with both countries allowing their forces to access facilities on their island territories, and vice versa.

2. Britain: Britain is considering its post-Brexit era with similar steps. British Member of Parliament Andrew Bowie called on the Johnson government to "open its eyes to the glaringly obvious” threats posed by China, and to "step up to the plate" by deploying the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific. Since 2018, Britain has deployed its warships in the region for the first time after an absence of several years. Those ships have even participated in operations near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which angered the Chinese at the time and made Beijing object and threaten, considering the British move a flagrant breach of the rules of international law.[7]

Britain currently enjoys a remarkable and sufficient military, security, intelligence and logistical presence, as it maintains forces from "Gurkha" in the Sultanate of Brunei, has a logistical base in Singapore, and participates with all of the "Five Eyes" (FVEY) alliance, an intelligence alliance that includes, in addition to the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US. The alliance aims to jointly and broadly invest in areas dominated by China, such as technology and research. Since 2018, Britain has deployed its warships in the region for the first time after an absence of several years. Those ships have even participated in operations near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, which angered the Chinese at the time and made Beijing object and threaten, considering the British move a flagrant breach of the rules of international law.[8]

The UK, which is also home to regional waters and part of the Five Power Defence Arrangement, joined the Western presence in the South China Sea more recently, with the deployment of three ships in August 2018 to send “the strongest of signals” on the importance of freedom of navigation. The preservation of the rules-based international order is vital to the survival of Britain in a post-Brexit world. Promoting its “Global Britain” strategy, it also needs to strengthen defence cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners to reassure them of its lasting commitment to regional security and shared values.

While the motivations and the form of the French and British freedom of navigation activities vary slightly, they send the same message, which serves the interests of all EU member states. In light of heightened tensions since the beginning of 2019, like-minded countries are starting to form a united front in defence of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the universal application of international law. Although Brussels and Washington may diverge in their current positions on and treatment of China, they both share an interest in preserving a free, rules-based global maritime domain.[9]

Drivers of the new European strategy in the Indo-Pacific

1. Geopolitical drivers (containing China)

  • The world’s centre of geopolitical gravity has been moving steadily eastward for decades. The Asia-Pacific now significantly outstrips Europe’s shares of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and global military spending. Although the rivalry between Russia and the West is significant, the trans-Pacific struggle between China and the US is epochal.[10] The Indian Ocean is of great importance in terms of international trade. There are no less than 63 ports distributed across various locations in this large ocean, which can be accessed through three important sea straits, namely the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, and the Strait of Bab al-Mandab. The Indian Ocean alone accounts for nearly 80 percent of global oil tanker transit, and houses nuclear powers, starting from India and Pakistan.
  • On the other hand, the administration of US President Donald Trump seeks to mobilise the EU against China, and has pressured the EU member states not to enter into partnerships with Chinese companies in the field of G5 networks. In June 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly urged Europe to raise its tone toward China, to clearly choose "freedom" rather than "tyranny", and discuss “the threat that China poses to the West and our shared democratic ideals". The US and the EU are moving towards starting a dialogue aimed at overcoming their differences over China. Washington hopes that it would be a "catalyst" for action against the Chinese "threat".
  • Furthermore, the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) crisis has triggered a new debate within Europe about the need for greater supply-chain "diversification", and thus for a managed disengagement from China. Since the crisis erupted, the EU has shown more of a willingness to push back against Chinese disinformation campaigns, and has adopted measures to protect distressed European companies from being bought out by Chinese investors.[11] In a report published in June 2020, Andrew Small of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) argues that the EU’s engagement with China will henceforth have a new purpose, namely to structure the Sino-European relationship in a way that reduces Europe’s dependence on Chinese trade and investment.[12]

2. Geo-economic drivers

The Indo-Pacific is a natural home to the world’s most populous countries, vast amounts of natural resources, and centres of industry and production in Asia. This region houses 60 percent of the world’s population, and includes the busiest commercial airports in the world. The region’s transit trade is one of the most important reasons for increased interest in the Indo-Pacific by various European countries. More than 70 percent of European trade passes through the Indo-Pacific. The region is also considered one of the most prominent global destinations for European arms sales. Nearly 40 percent of the EU’s trade passes through the South China Sea. More than 35 percent of all European exports go to Asia, and four of its top 10 trading partners are China, Japan, South Korea and India. On the other hand, six EU countries are among the world’s top ten arms exporters.[13]

The EU’s trade with Japan alone accounts for 25 percent of global GDP. The EU is also ASEAN’s second largest trading partner, while ASEAN is the EU’s third largest trading partner. In addition to economic interests, Brussels also has legal and political commitments to regional stability, stemming from its Strategic Partnerships, membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). Finally, and more importantly, there are the rifts in the South China Sea.

3. Security and military drivers

The Indian Ocean overlooks most of the conflict areas in the world, especially in the Middle East, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Thus, the strategic position of the Indian Ocean plays a decisive and pivotal role in the future of global trade security (including energy).

While the US plays a major role in deterring China in the Indo-Pacific, it is not easy for powers like Britain and France, permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to take strong positions at the level of principles and concrete steps. This allows delegitimisation and further marginalisation of the Chinese positions, especially since the two countries are considered strategic partners closely related to Japan, Australia and India, and among the most prominent drivers of European interaction with regional security issues there, which means that the EU would adopt stricter foreign policies towards China.[14]

Worried that Beijing is intent on imposing its will on smaller Southeast Asian countries, Europe has now followed the US by more openly placing its thumb on the scale of regional disputes. Despite vehement Chinese opposition, France has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the Taiwan Straits, the UK has committed to deploying its newly-built HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier to the South China Sea by next year, and Germany is contemplating its own aircraft carrier and naval deployment to the region.[15]

Constraints and limitations of the new European strategy towards the Indo-Pacific

The EU has the world’s second largest economy with a GDP of 15.3 trillion euros. Three of its member states are among the world’s top ten defence spenders. Collectively, the EU spends 200 billion euros on defence. Such facts suggest that the EU can help preserve the balance of power in Southeast Asia. But it does not appear to do that, for several reasons:

1. Different positions within the EU

Despite the increasing integration of security and defence affairs since 2016, the EU is still far from realising its historic dream of forming a "European Army". With the exception of missions designated for the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) (such as those currently operating in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Somalia), the EU does not operate any permanent maritime assets. At another level, Asia is not the EU’s biggest strategic priority. At the top of the EU’s strategic agenda are areas that include Russia, the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East.[16]

Even as some of Europe’s leading powers – Germany, France and the UK – have become more skeptical of China’s policies, many of the continent’s smaller, poorer members, particularly in the south and southeast, have come to see Beijing as a source of badly needed commerce and capital. China’s dollar reserves are estimated at more than three billion dollars that can be partly utilised to buy the debts of some countries such as Italy, Greece and Portugal. Besides, the surge of political illiberalism in countries such as Hungary and Poland has created cracks in the continent’s democratic unity.[17]

2. The strong economic partnership between the EU (especially Germany) and China

Since the inception of the EU-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2003, the EU and China have become highly intertwined. While the value of Chinese exports to united Europe in 2019 amounted to nearly 420.7 billion euros, China’s imports from Europe reached nearly 225.2 billion euros. According to these figures, China is the largest exporter to the EU even as the Chinese market is the second most important market for united Europe after the US.[18]

On the other hand, bilateral trade between China and Germany reached more than 200 billion euros in 2018. China has been the focus of Berlin’s diplomatic attention in Asia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits China almost annually. China also accounts for 50 percent of Germany’s trade with the Indo-Pacific. According to a report issued in February 2020, China owns four out of every 10 Volkswagen cars sold around the world, and nearly three out of every 10 cars sold by BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Berlin will want to preserve this important commercial relationship. Moreover, an important part of Germany’s approach to the region will be "strengthening international cooperation structures", which is precisely the kind of multilateral mechanisms that the administration of US President Trump downplays.

3. The weak German military capabilities

Though Europe’s leading economic power, Germany has punched decidedly below its geostrategic weight in recent decades. From the world’s third-largest military in the 1980s, with hundreds of thousands of troops ready for full mobilisation, Germany saw a dramatic scaling down of its military capabilities following the end of the Cold War and unification with East Germany. The upshot has been Germany’s relatively limited capability to project power overseas, despite its central role within the EU and massive economic resources. When Germany expressed growing interest in security affairs, it usually centred on the threat posed by Russia, not China.[19]

4. Europe's economic crises due to the coronavirus pandemic

The EU is unlikely to begin to increase its expenditures and expand its military commitments in areas far from its direct security, at a time when most of its countries are suffering from severe financial crises. In mid-April 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that the Covid-19 pandemic and its financial fallout raised the Eurozone’s debt to 100 percent of its GDP. Europe will need at least another 500 billion euros from EU institutions to finance its economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to an agreed package of half a trillion euros.


Given the limitations and risks referred to above, the EU is not a traditional security player, nor is it a strategic change agent for the game in the Indo-Pacific. The EU has always sought to play a greater role in Asia. However, in regions such as regional conflicts in the South China Sea, the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US for hegemony in the region, among other issues, has cast a shadow over Brussels’ ambitions. ASEAN’s previous suspicions of the EU as a potential player in the region have also hampered those ambitions.

Nevertheless, Europe’s creative thinking on non-traditional issues, such as its holistic approach to crisis management (as evident in its anti-piracy mission, known as Atalanta), humanitarian aid and disaster relief, and co-development, can make a valuable and lasting contribution to regional maritime security in the South China Sea and beyond. 


[1] Pilippe Le Corre and John Ferguson, “How Europe’s 3 Big Are Shifting on China”, The Diplomat, 14 August 2020, Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/how-europes-big-3-are-shifting-on-china/

[2] Satoshi Ikeuchi, “Germany and the Indo-Pacific Ocean”, alroeya, 5 September 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lgz4tS

[3] Sebastian Strangio, "Germany Joins the ‘Indo-Pacific’ Club," The Diplomat, September 03, 2020, available at: https://thediplomat.com/2020/09/germany-joins-the-indo-pacific-club

[4] Pankaj Jha, "France, Germany and the UK note verbale to the UN on the SCS issue," Modern Diplomacy, September 23, 2020, available at https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2020/09/23/france-germany-and-the-uk-note-verbale-to-the-un-on-the-scs-issue/

[5] Eva Pejsova, "Between Principles and Pragmatism: The EU and the South China Sea," Global Asia, The East Asia Foundation, June 2019 (Vol.14 No.2), available at: https://www.globalasia.org/v14no2/focus/between-principles-and-pragmatism-the-eu-and-the-south-china-sea_eva-pejsova

[6] “France activates the military diplomacy card in the China Sea”, alarab, 10 June 2018. Available at: https://rawabetcenter.com/archives/68096

[7] RICHARD JAVAD HEYDARIAN, "European powers weigh wading into South China Sea," Asia Times, September 16, 2020, available at: https://asiatimes.com/2020/09/european-powers-weigh-wading-into-south-china-sea

[8] Abdullah al-Madani, Britain’s post-Brexit foreign policies”, albayan, 11 February 2020. Available at: https://www.albayan.ae/opinions/articles/2020-02-11-1.3775427

[9] Eva Pejsova, "Between Principles and Pragmatism: The EU and the South China Sea," op. cit.

[10] Hal Brands, “Europe Has to Choose a Side in the U.S.-China Rivalry”, Bloomberg, 27 September 2019. Available at: https://bloom.bg/33HvseJ

[11] Mark Leonard, “The End of Europe’s Chinese Dream”, European Council on Foreign Relations, 27 May 2020. Available at: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_the_end_of_europes_chinese_dream

[12] Ragul Palanisami, "China-Europe Relations During COVID-19 – Analysis," Eurasia Review, September 16, 2020, available at: https://www.eurasiareview.com/16092020-china-europe-relations-during-covid-19-analysis/

[13] Anita Inder Singh, "Why the EU is not a Major Security Player in Southeast Asia," IPP Review, Jan. 11, 2019, available at: https://www.ippreview.com/index.php/Blog/single/id/873.html

[14] Prakiti Gupta, “Europe renews its interest in militarising the Indo-Pacific”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 26 January 2019. Available at: https://bit.ly/3kRRe51

[15] RICHARD JAVAD HEYDARIAN, "US-led coalition encircling China’s sea ambitions," Asia Times, September 21, 2020, available at: https://asiatimes.com/2020/09/us-led-coalition-encircling-chinas-sea-ambitions

[16] Anita Inder Singh, "Why the EU is not a Major Security Player in Southeast Asia," op. cit.

[17] Hal Brands, “Europe Has to Choose a Side in the U.S.-China Rivalry”, op. cit.

[18] Magdy Sobhy, “China and a united Europe: Negotiation as an alternative to confrontation, al-ain, 19 September 2020. Available at: https://al-ain.com/article/china-and-a-united-europe-negotiation-as-an-alternative-to-confrontation

[19] RICHARD JAVAD HEYDARIAN, "Germany wades into the Indo-Pacific fray," Asia Times, September 5, 2020, available at: https://asiatimes.com/2020/09/germany-wades-into-the-indo-pacific-fray/


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