The European Union takes interest in the Indo-Pacific region, but does not aim “to create rival blocs or force countries to take sides”.
“We want to deepen our cooperation with democratic, like-minded partners,” EU High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell said a lecture at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta.
He said the European Union’s commitment to democratic rights and fundamental freedoms is very strong. “Not because we see these as European or Western constructs. But because these values and principles are universal.”
“Many countries and certainly the people in this region share our view: they want to determine their political future and have their rights protected,” he said.
The Indo-Pacific region combines the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the landmasses that surround them. But it draws massive global attention after the US administration adopted the Indo-Pacific strategy (IPS) which is being seen as a way to contain the rise of China. Beijing also pursues belt and road initiative (BRI) and warns countries against US-led ‘Quad’ in the region. Japan, Australia and India are the other three countries of the quadrilateral ‘Quad’.
Borrell shared the EU approach to the Indo-Pacific in his lecture and said they have “significant stakes” in the “dynamic” region.
“It is as much a strategic space as a geographical reality, which we define as stretching from East Africa to the Pacific Island States. It is becoming the world’s centre of gravity, both in geo-economic and geo-political terms,” he said.
“The EU is the top investor and development assistance provider for the Indo-Pacific. And one of its biggest trading partners. Put differently, we are also an actor of the Indo-Pacific development,” he added while sharing some facts and figures.
The Indo-Pacific creates 60% of global GDP and two-thirds of global growth. It is the second largest destination for EU exports; and home to four out of the top ten EU trading partners.
By 2030, the overwhelming majority (90%) of the 2.4 billion new members of the middle class will come from this region.
“However, amid all this dynamism, the regional stability is increasingly challenged: maritime and land disputes, internal crises and conflicts, and the US-China geo-political competition is intensifying. We see the consequences around the world, but most sharply in this region,” he said.
The Indo-Pacific’s share of global military spending increased from 20% in 2009 to 28% in 2019 and is rising further.
“That means countries in this region are investing heavily in their militaries, as they are not sure what the future holds. It is a sign of a worsening regional security landscape,” he warned.
He said Asia’s security architecture and regional order remains work in progress. In and around Europe, there are certainly many security challenges too.
“But over time, Europeans have developed a strong institutional framework, such as the EU and NATO, but also the OSCE and the Council of Europe.
“In Asia, we have ASEAN-centred organisations guiding security cooperation including the ASEAN Regional Forum, of which the EU is an active member.
“Increasingly we also see the development of other frameworks, led by China and the Quad for instance,” he said.
“The Indo-Pacific region is the future, but insecurity and tensions are rising, threatening the order and balance of this dynamic region. The key point to make here is that economic growth of this region rests on openness, on stable and shared rules, and shared security.
“The EU’s interest is precisely this: that the regional order stays open and rules-based,” he said, adding that the EU can contribute a lot in this regard.
Citing a research conducted by an institute in Singapore, he said four in ten of the respondents of the survey among the opinion-leaders and policy-makers in Southeast Asia picked the EU as their most favoured and trusted strategic partner.
“We are perhaps not as flashy as other partners, but we also do not zig-zag. We have no hidden agenda. What you see is what you get. We are reliable and predictable. We can and do commit for the long-term,” he said.
“The EU has demonstrated its credentials with our response to the pandemic. We are supporting our global partners to deal with the consequences with a €40 billion “Team Europe” package. We favour vaccine multilateralism and believe that COVAX is the best way to ensure the access to vaccines by low and middle-income partner countries in this region.”
“The basic message is that the EU will work with its partners in the Indo-Pacific to respond to emerging dynamics that are affecting regional stability. Our approach is by the way very close to ASEAN’s own Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.
“Concretely, we will advance joint work to boost, trade and investment, economic openness and a sustainable approach to connectivity.
“We will promote multilateral cooperation, working on global challenges, from the pandemic to climate, from ocean governance to digital.
“And we will deepen our security engagement, seeking to make that cooperation as concrete as possible.
“Our new strategy aims to deepen regional integration and is inclusive for all our partners in the region, wishing to cooperate with the EU when our interests coincide. This includes China because we know that in important areas, like climate, fisheries and biodiversity, its cooperation is essential,” he said.