Academic journal article Asia Policy

European Engagement in the Indo-Pacific: The Interplay between Institutional and State-Level Naval Diplomacy

Academic journal article Asia Policy

European Engagement in the Indo-Pacific: The Interplay between Institutional and State-Level Naval Diplomacy

Article excerpt

The Indo-Pacific is at the center of U.S.-China strategic competition. The South China Sea and the Indian Ocean are prominent arenas for this interaction. In the South China Sea, the United States under the Trump administration has enhanced its freedom of navigation operations in response to China's land reclamations and militarization of the features it occupies. The United States routinely sails within twelve nautical miles of Chinese-occupied features to demonstrate its position that these areas are international waters. U.S. assertiveness, however, has not stopped China from reinforcing and expanding its presence. On the contrary, China has enhanced both patrols in the South China Sea and coercive behavior toward other claimant states such as the Philippines and Vietnam, while continuing to build artificial islands and deploy advanced military capabilities. In the Indian Ocean, China is also expanding its military strategic presence. In 2017, for example, China opened a naval base in Djibouti. In response, the United States has stepped up its ongoing military-strategic cooperation with India. The U.S. Navy makes port calls and conducts joint exercises that focus on closer interoperation. Tellingly, in 2018, Washington renamed U.S. Pacific Command as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and India was elevated to Strategic Trade Authorization-1 status on a par with U.S. NATO allies.

Does Europe have a role to play in this strategic competition, one utilizing economic and diplomatic means as well as multilateral institutional frameworks to advance national and regional objectives? This article argues that despite regional challenges such as Brexit, migration, and financial crises, Europe-through the actions of both the European Union and individual European states-does indeed make a difference to U.S.-China strategic competition. Its role involves demonstrating support for core values challenged by China that are shared with the United States and U.S. allies and strategic partners. Europe carries out this role, however, from an independent position that allows it to pursue its specific interests as well as common transatlantic interests in the Indo-Pacific. European activism does not involve a united EU acting as a bloc with one voice on all issue areas. The EU is far too fragmented to act with unity on Indo-Pacific issues. Europe is also marked by complex arrangements among institutions, member states, and affiliated states of the EU, with extensive institutional sovereignty on issues such as trade agreements as well as advisory capacity on issues such as security policy. And Indo-Pacific issues are not among the EU's most immediate concerns at a time when migration, the United Kingdom's presumptive exit from the EU, growing economic concerns in Italy, rising authoritarianism in Eastern Europe, and security challenges from Russia take priority.

Instead, this article will argue that in areas in which EU institutions have an advisory role toward member states, Europe has established a division of labor between EU institutions on the one side and groupings of member states and individual countries on the other. For example, because of internal EU divisions on how far to criticize China's behavior in the South China Sea, European institutions have issued general policy commitments that have been followed up by the participation of a growing number of EU states in freedom of navigation operations. This is a good example of the fact that Europe's comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy consists of two main elements. One element is the institutional level of the EU, which designs general policies and implementation mechanisms, such as free trade agreements (FTAs), summit diplomacy, and recommendations for policy. A second element is groupings of EU countries that translate policy into practical implementation in ways that strengthen Europe's footprint by means such as military exercises, port calls, investment screening, and border control. …

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