Indo-Pacific security should also be a European affair

Charles Edel and John Lee’s comprehensive report, The future of the US–Australia alliance in an era of great power competition, exposes evident gaps in the way both Australia and the US think about European engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

The report, published in June by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, is an erudite analysis of the challenges and opportunities ahead for the US–Australia alliance as each country navigates its increasingly complex relationship with a rising China in the region. The authors delve into areas of convergence between the US and Australia, illustrate divergent perspectives within the alliance on the China question, and make an effort to ‘bridge’ the gap. But, surely, any serious attempt to put the US and Australia on the path ‘to recapitalising their alliance and modelling how to revitalise other alliances in the region’ requires engagement from the outset with the European Union.

The region is of critical strategic significance to the EU, and yet the report is devoid of any mention of the EU or of European undertakings in the Indo-Pacific. The EU’s 2016 Global Europe strategy illustrates the centrality of the region to Brussels’ overall global security outlook. The 2018 strategy focuses at length on the EU concept of a ‘connected Asia’:

There is a direct connection between European prosperity and Asian security. In light of the economic weight that Asia represents for the EU—and vice versa—peace and stability in Asia are a prerequisite for our prosperity. We will deepen economic diplomacy and scale up our security role in Asia.

Given its references to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and the primacy of international law, the report could have engaged with various EU strategies that are geared towards protecting such concepts in the region. Europe’s commitment to upholding international law and norms, as well as human rights, overlaps with the security issues at play in the region.

Obvious examples include the South China Sea and concerns about climate change and increased congestion in the Strait of Malacca. On the basis of these mutual security interests, the US–Australia alliance has plenty of room for engagement with the EU when it comes to the Indo-Pacific.

Economics is a significant driver of the alliance’s interest in a stable and secure Indo-Pacific. The report indicates the need for the US and Australia to better coordinate their economic policies in the region. This is also an area of great interest to the EU. The EU is the world’s largest trading partner, and, as such, China is an indispensable market for Europe. The report discusses the policy imperative to diversify markets in the Indo-Pacific. While this may be a priority, it cannot be achieved in any real terms without engagement and collaboration with the EU.

In particular, the EU is interested in economic engagement with the developing economies and countries in the region. The alliance has a strong interest in fostering developing economies’ engagement with EU markets if not with the US or Australian economies, as opposed to potentially falling prey to China’s debt-for-asset loan arrangements.

The absence of the EU in the Australian and US Indo-Pacific strategic debate also speaks to a challenge Brussels has with communicating its strategic interests far beyond Europe. Similarly, the report picks up on the challenge more broadly for the US and Australia of delivering targeted and consistent messaging about the Indo-Pacific region.

It’s not only important for regional players to understand the strategic interests and positions of the US and Australia in the Indo-Pacific. It’s also crucial for engaged actors (like the EU) to know what the strategic priorities are. Clear messaging communicates expectations of all players in the region. How actors then respond is another matter entirely. Engaging the EU in a collaborative effort on strategic messaging should be a priority for the US and Australian alliance.

The report also recommends that the US and Australia explore new networks of alliances and partners to improve the region’s security outlook. Beyond the obvious potential of broader EU collaboration in this effort, the alliance could engage with individual EU states directly in the Indo-Pacific—such as France. France is wedded to the region and tabled a formal strategy for the Indo-Pacific in 2019.

That document, France and security in the Indo-Pacific, unpacks France’s strategic interests in the region—largely a result of its territory and population within the region. Interestingly, France’s Indo-Pacific strategy also covers Antarctic strategic concerns. Antarctica is an entire continent left out of Edel and Lee’s report, despite the Southern Ocean being linked to both the Indian and Pacific Oceans; the US and Australian stakes in the Antarctic Treaty System; and China’s increased activity in the south polar region.

Overall, ‘leadership’ appears to be the Indo-Pacific currency as we head into 2020. The report urges the US and Australia to do more to expand their leadership remit in the region. Yet, US-style hegemonic leadership is unlikely to be accepted in the region, and Australia still has to demonstrate that it can follow through and lead regionally. To overcome these hurdles, Washington and Canberra must invest in consensus-building beyond the alliance, communicate better with their partners, and develop Indo-Pacific initiatives that include the EU as a key stakeholder.

If we are truly returning to an era of great-power competition, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, it’s imperative for the US and Australia to engage more deeply with the EU. After all, Europe has weathered its fair share of great-power trials and tribulations throughout the centuries.

If the US and Australia are serious about securing the Indo-Pacific and upholding the rules-based global order in the region, it’s clear the alliance will need outside help. The EU is well placed, experienced and strategically intertwined in the Indo-Pacific. As an added bonus, the EU is like-minded. Given the sheer gravity of the traditional and non-traditional security challenges in the Indo-Pacific, it would be shrewd strategy for the alliance to share the load and foster deeper engagement with the EU.