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Geopolitical Europe: How to navigate in the Indo-Pacific Decade?

To speak the language of power, the EU would need at least partial strategic autonomy in European security and defence as well as multilateral alliances in global affairs. For Europe to become a geopolitical actor and not serve as a battle arena for the systemic rivalry between the U.S. and China as well as other assertive regional actors such as Russia and Turkey, it is necessary to pursue European interests, values, and norms internally and project power externally by forging alliances and partnerships with like-minded countries. However, the European strategic autonomy can only be the result of concrete steps, measures, and actions to reduce certain interdependencies in key areas and sectors, but never the ultimate goal in itself. How should the EU and its members navigate amid the Bifurcation of the Global System in the emerging Indo-Pacific decade?

First, Europe is slowly but surely becoming a geopolitical backyard of global affairs where other external actors will decide the fate and future of the old continent. The steadily deteriorating security situation in and around Europe suggests that the “ring of fire” will remain indefinite, overwhelming the continent’s periphery, while the EU and its member states continue to pursue the same approach but expect different outcomes.

Second, the Bifurcation of the Global System and the emergence of a new phenomenon — the Dragonbear, that is a modus vivendi of systemic coordination between China and Russia in key areas and sectors to shape the future of the global order in their favor — are systemic processes largely unanticipated by the EU and the member states. Even worse, the West is increasingly fragmented between the Anglo-Saxon and European approaches to China. The U.S. and its European partners are clearly not on the same page geopolitically. And the trend obviously points to a growing split between the Anglosphere and the EU, when it comes to dealing with the Dragonbear.

Third, European institutions and members need a new grand geoeconomic program that goes beyond the enlargement and the neighborhood policy. This must be an ambitious long-term project to inhance the European geoeconomic clout, desirably centered around connectivity and digitalization. The Global Gateway may be the adequate European response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but the Three Seas Initiative should be seen as an indispensable part of it and an important breakthrough in the EU’s geo-economic approach to connecting the North with the South and moving European connectivity and infrastructure across the Mediterranean Sea to MENA.

Fourth, crisis management is an important component of the Strategic Compass. The greatest risk for Europe, in addition to the increasing political, economic and social destabilization of the continent, is the emergence of lines of fragmentation along competing geopolitical interests of the external actors. The deepening of these dividing lines could prevent the EU from acting coherently and strategically on the global world stage. The divergent goals of key actors — the U.S., China, Russia, Turkey, etc. — further divide European member states and institutions on geopolitical issues. As a result, the EU has less and less room for maneuvers in the increasingly contested areas in its immediate neighborhood to the south and east, while other regional actors not only have combat experience but also do not shy away from the use of force. The geopolitical gaps that are increasingly opening up in the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe will also be filled by these agile regional actors, further exacerbating the EU’s conflictual relations with Moscow and Ankara. A common denominator will be to achieve a convergence of European positions toward Russia and Turkey.

In reality, no European member state was willing to provide personnel and weapons for the multinational task forces (EU Battle Groups) in the first half of 2021, despite repeated requests from the EU. After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, initiated a debate about a 5,000-strong unit that would be ready to deploy within a few days in crisis situations. However, it would make more sense to build a public-private partnership for a rapid reaction force in Europe on a consortium basis. In the age of increasingly active private security companies (e.g., in the U.S., Russia, China, Turkey, etc.), the EU must be able to exercise “hard power” quickly and efficiently in the immediate European neighborhood to the south and east. Only in this way can the EU and its members be perceived as a geopolitical actor that can directly influence developments on the ground and that is therefore entitled to an active role in important international negotiations. A public-private partnership based on a consortium of European private companies, representatives of European institutions, and state governments on a rotational basis must take responsibility for this new type of rapid reaction force so that urgent decisions on deployment can be made quickly. The area of operations can be limited exclusively to the immediate southern and eastern neighborhood of the EU, and the mandate should change two to three times a year to avoid the abuse of hard power. The deployment should be multilateral, similar to the French Foreign Legion, with the strike force composed exclusively of soldiers recruited on a voluntary basis from European member states, the Western Balkan candidates, and the associated countries of Eastern Europe. Such a public-private strike force will 1) be deployed to protect European connectivity and investment projects along European supply chains and transportation, energy, and trade routes in North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea region, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East; 2) provide a rapidly deployable force that can be immediately deployed in close proximity to the EU in the event of an escalating situation that threatens European interests; and 3) provide soldiers and their families with citizenship of an EU country of their choice if they are from a candidate or associated country.

Fifth, a division of labor among member states is required. Each member state fulfills a special function in foreign and security policy tasks to avoid overlapping of tasks, and the different teams come together to form a larger functional whole based on geographic priorities and specific areas of expertise. Strict specialization by small agile teams of three to four member states based on task sharing is one way to address the problem of lack of coherence in European security and defense. These task force teams can accomplish specific geopolitical objectives based on their strengths and competencies. Even the smallest member has equal weight in the teams. This ensures a division of tasks based on the comparative advantages and concrete expertise of the teams, not their national interests and priorities. The Nordic countries can lead a team for the Arctic, hybrid and cyber threats. The Baltic and Central and Eastern European countries can take the lead in e-governance, digitalization, Russia, and the Eastern Partnership. Romania and Bulgaria can take the lead in the Black Sea and Danube regions. Southern countries can take the lead in the Mediterranean region, connectivity with North Africa, and migration flows from Africa. Central European countries and Austria can take the lead on the Three Seas Initiative and the cooperation with the Western Balkans. Germany can take care of geoeconomic power projection beyond the EU and deal with important trade agreements with third countries in favor of the whole. France can take the lead on nuclear weapons, security and defense capabilities, and crisis management, as well as in the Indo-Pacific region and Africa. And the Benelux countries together with Irland can take a leading role in free trade, financial and monetary issues as well as relations with the UK. Against this backdrop, the EU should not seek to unite all member states around the lowest common denominator, but rather diversify its security and defence policy based on each member state’s greatest strengths and best geopolitical expertise.

Finally, Europe must find an adequate response to the question of how to navigate through the Indo-Pacific decade. Over the past years, experts have propagated the emergence of an Asian multipolar century, with a shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. However, after the COVID-19 outbreak, this year marks the obvious manifestation of an Indo-Pacific decade, with the U.S., China, and possibly India being the key players in an emerging competition. Furthermore, the transformation of global supply chains away from China is likely to create new synergies in terms of business and connectivity opportunities between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. The disruption of global supply chains combined with a compromised rules-based global order caused by the erosion of international structures and newly emerging organizations and institutions promoted by the Dragonbear will certainly not bypass the Indo-Pacific region. In this context, regional geoeconomic power centers such as the EU have already begun to consider shifting production to the Indo-Pacific region, which will become a major battleground of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the coming decade. Moreover, the conclusion of an EU-India FTA will undoubtedly strengthen the global positioning of both actors in the current multilateral architecture, with a particular focus on joint responses to global and regional challenges.

In this global context, the EU should not try to act as a giant neutral bloc of the blessed while avoiding taking sides in the systemic rivalry between Washington and Beijing or refraining from the use of hard power in its immediate environment. The EU’s approach of oscillating between Washington and Beijing will not work in the long run. Hard conclusions must be drawn in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris about whether they are not increasingly isolating themselves from key transatlantic partners inside and outside Europe because of their approach to global affairs and, in particular, to the Dragonbear.

Given that the EU maintains its approach of equidistance in the growing systemic rivalry between the U.S. and China, Brussels and the member states should consider adopting a uniquely European path to navigate through the multiple regional flashpoints and emerging polarization between two power centers of the global system — Washington and Beijing. In sum, the EU and India could choose a third path by developing a non-aligned global position rather than having to choose between Washington and Beijing in the long run. The stakes, however, will be very high. In the case of the EU, this would mean a separation from the U.S. in the areas of security and defense. The fact that the U.S. is willing to spend more spend more political capital and invest in security and defense relationships with the UK and Australia before reaching out to EU powers is quite telling (e.g. AUKUS, QUAD). The AUKUS announcement in support of mutual security and defense interests, which builds on the long-standing bilateral relationship between the three countries, must be also seen in the context of the intensifying systemic rivalry between the United States and China and the Bifurcation of the Global System. The EU and its members should therefore prepare for a scenario in which the diplomatic, security, and defense relationship between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in the Indo-Pacific region is deepened and complemented by cooperation with partners such as Japan and India. The AUKUS could soon become a JAKUSI (Japan, A(U)KUS, India), which would further limit Europe’s options in this part of the world and slowly but surely turn it into a geopolitical backyard of global affairs given that the regional tensions between China and India will further grow along with the deepening systemic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. As long as the EU does not become a security actor in the Indo-Pacific region, there will be only moderate opportunities for cooperation with the countries of the Anglosphere in the future.

In summary, Europe must become a security actor in the Indo-Pacific region with or without American assistance. Any blockades or tensions along the Indo-Pacific sea lanes would have a devastating impact on European trade flows and longt-term prosperity, so it is in the common interest of European powers to maintain secure and stable maritime routes in this region and beyond. In this highly volatile geopolitical context, the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy demonstrates that Brussels recognizes the growing importance of the region and is committed to strengthening its role there, with a particular focus on India. The launch of the strategy is the necessary condition, but obtaining a “hard power” role in the immediate neighborhood and in the Indo-Pacific region remains the sufficient condition for Europe to become a geopolitical actor in this decade.

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Velina Tchakarova

Velina is Director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) in Vienna. www.velinatchakarova.com