Navigating the Indo-Pacific Tides: Key Takeaways from the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum 2024

Amidst the complex currents of geopolitics, economic interdependence, and global challenges, the Third EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum convened in Brussels on 1-2, February 2024, hosted by Josep Borrell Fontelles, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission. Now in its third year, the forum holds significant weight as a cornerstone of the EU's overarching strategy for Indo-Pacific cooperation, originally conceived in 2021. As the EU and the Indo-Pacific region increasingly intertwine across security, economy, and society, the imperative for a unified and well-coordinated response to common challenges as well as opportunities becomes ever more apparent.

Against the backdrop of a world at a critical crossroads, the Ministerial Forum served as a vital platform for assessing EU cooperation in and with the region across a spectrum of domains, including inclusive prosperity, the green transition, ocean governance, digitalisaton, connectivity, defence, and human security. Through three concurrent roundtables addressing (1) geopolitical and security challenges, (2) economic resilience and investment, and the imperative (3) green transition, leaders from more than 70 nations gathered to navigate the path towards stability and enhanced prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. This op-ed explores the current state of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy, emphasising the collaborative actions needed by the EU and nations in the Indo-Pacific to move beyond the confines of traditional diplomatic settings and Brussels conference rooms to forge a path forward.

The Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific: Common Security Threats and Challenges

The Indo-Pacific region stands as a vibrant and diverse economic powerhouse, serving as a vital cog in the global economic machinery. Accounting for nearly half of the world’s GDP and home to 60% of the global population, it transcends mere geography and economics, embodying a distinct geopolitical paradigm primarily shaped by the rivalry between the United States and China. This geopolitical landscape holds immense implications not only for the region itself but also for the broader global order. However, amidst its dynamism, the Indo-Pacific grapples with intricate geopolitical rivalries that risk to challenge the established rules-based order.

During the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum, the shared recognition of Europe’s security interdependence with the region emerged as a central theme. The urgency to fortify partnerships and cooperation between the EU and Indo-Pacific nations becomes evident in light of on-going challenges in the global arena. With security concerns taking centre stage, the heightened tensions in the South and East China Seas, as well as across the Taiwan Strait, have been overshadowed by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and recent developments in the Middle East. Amidst the current geopolitical context, upholding international law, nurturing a free and open Indo-Pacific, and jointly addressing common global challenges stand as shared objectives. Nonetheless, while the prioritisation of the EU security agenda within the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial forum is subject to ongoing discussion, collective commitment to constructive engagement remains steadfast. To address these contemporary security threats, partnerships, practical cooperation, and capacity-building efforts are essential. It is evident that the EU is actively engaging in high-level security and defence dialogues with several Indo-Pacific countries, e.g. the Korea-EU Defense Security Dialogue to push for practical ways to cooperate on defence exchanges like high-level military exchanges, as well as the EU-Japan strategic dialogue to boost security and defence, thereby reaffirming its commitment to enhancing engagement through concrete actions. 

At the heart of the Indo-Pacific, ASEAN garners attention, particularly in the context of the EU’s proactive pursuit of partnerships and the bolstering of existing ties in the region. Endorsing the concept of ASEAN centrality, dialogue with ASEAN underscores the complexities of the EU’s Indo-Pacific security strategy. The 24th ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting held in Brussels in the afternoon of 2 February 2024, showcased positive cooperative positions on various issues between the EU and ASEAN.  In a joint statement following the Meeting, the two regional blocs reached a joint position on various issues including on tougher standpoints. On the war in Ukraine for instance, the EU and ASEAN included a statement highlighting that most members strongly condemned the war, while taking note of other views and different assessments of the situation and related sanctions among the Forum’s participants. Regarding the on-going situation in Gaza the parties agreed to condemn all attacks against civilians despite diverging views and standpoints toward the conflict, reflecting the willingness to achieve consensus despite their different standpoints. Regarding the endeavour to formulate a unified response to Indo-Pacific security, challenges nvertheless still persist. The EU’s 2021 Indo-Pacific Strategy advocates for a multilateral approach centred on connectivity, sustainability, and security initiatives. However, divergent priorities among EU member states complicated matters. Notably, in its own Indo-Pacific Strategy France mainly emphasises unilateral defence capabilities and comprehensive coverage of trade and climate, while Dutch guidelines advocate for a unique EU vision and a robust EU presence to maintain a balance of power in the region. Germany‘s comprehensive policy aligns with the EU’s holistic approach, but rather with a focus on trade stability, reflecting distinct economic interests.

The challenges of harmonising EU and its Member States’ interests are palpable in post-forum dialogues and collaborative efforts. While the EU aspires to a multilateral approach, the varied focal points underscore the ongoing struggle to forge a cohesive front. The EU’s lack of a unified security narrative underscores the complexity of navigating diverse member states’ interests and priorities. Nonetheless, the EU will need to present a united front to address Indo-Pacific challenges and pave the way for a peaceful, stable, and prosperous future.

Economic Dynamics: The Shifting Landscape of Trade Agendas

The EU’s trade agenda is at the forefront of its cooperation with the Indo-Pacific region. The EU’s economy is deeply intertwined with the Indo-Pacific through trade, investment, and supply networks. Despite the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, trade between the Indo-Pacific and the EU continued to expand in 2022. Imports surged by 117% to 1,120 billion EUR, and exports grew by 59% to 645 billion EUR. Although the EU experienced a trade deficit of 471 billion EUR due to higher imports, the region witnessed a significant recovery from the pandemic, with imports increasing by 61% and exports by 26%. Notably, Indo-Pacific trade accounted for 37% of EU imports and 25% of exports, underscoring its substantial role in EU trade dynamics.

Recent discussions underscore the EU’s dedication for open and free trade as well as sustained engagement with the Indo-Pacific, particularly emphasising economic partnerships and the pursuit of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with key nations in the region. The EU has recently ratified the EU-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (FTA), demonstrating its commitment to expanding its network of FTAs in the Indo-Pacific. The EU is also actively engaged in the process of preparing and on-going negotiations for FTAs with countries such as Indonesia, India, the Philippines and Thailand. Additionally, there are considerations for potentially reinitiating negotiations with other ASEAN partners, while exploring the extension of the EU-Pacific Economic Partnership Agreement to encompass more Pacific nations.

In the realm of technological supremacy, the Indo-Pacific has become a focal point for dominance in critical areas such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity. The EU’s response emphasises collaborative efforts, recognising the profound implications of technological advancements on the economy, military capabilities, and overall security. Recent forums that have concentrated on digital cooperation with key Indo-Pacific nations, such as the EU-India Trade and Technology Council, alongside digital partnerships with Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, are nurturing advanced cooperation in technology, research, innovation, secure international connectivity, and digital regulation. Moreover, digital trade rules are under negotiation between the EU and several Indo-Pacific countries e.g. negotiations on a bilateral digital trade agreement with Singapore and a Memorandum of Cooperation on submarine connectivity with Japan. Overall, the EU is prioritising cooperation mechanisms through research and innovation to strengthen ties with the Indo-Pacific region, emphasising core values and principles guiding these efforts.

These deliberations underscore the EU’s strategic intent in navigating the evolving trade landscape around the globe. However, it remains to be seen whether this strategy aligns with the global reality of trade, which has been shifting towards more restrictive measures on trade and investment. It raises questions about whether new forms of protectionism are contradictory to the objectives of shared prosperity, sustainability, and inclusivity and how to ultimately address this.

Green Transition

Highlighting the significance of balanced and inclusive EU investment in the Indo-Pacific region presents an opportunity to promote the green economy and climate resilience, optimise the benefits of digital transformation, and create a favourable and predictable business climate to facilitate economic ties. Through strategic investments, grants, and partnerships, the EU positions itself to mitigate environmental harm, bolster renewable energy capacity, and cultivate sustainable development across these diverse regions.

The Green Transition represents a collaborative endeavour between the EU and an array of nations spanning the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Noteworthy efforts include forging Green Partnerships and backing green growth projects in countries like the Republic of Korea, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Kenya, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam, South Africa, Tanzania, Pakistan, Mauritius, Gulf nations, and Central Asia. The EU also aims to cooperate more actively with Indo-Pacific countries towards a green and sustainable future. Together with the G7 partners, the EU has also agreed Just Energy Transition Partnerships with South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam. 

The Indo-Pacific emerges as a focal point in this transition, given the swift growth of economies in Southeast Asia and the burgeoning populations therein, which collectively contribute significantly to the exponentially surging global energy demand. The European Investment Bank is already investing 500 million EUR to accelerate Vietnam’s green transition in a way that benefits both people and the planet.

The growing demand for critical raw materials (CRMs) in the energy transition has thrust the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy into the forefront of sustainable practices. Beyond mere financial support, the EU actively engages in trade agreements that promote the responsible sourcing of CRMs. This commitment aligns with the principles of fair and resilient governance, illustrating the EU’s pivotal role in accelerating the green transition in collaboration with Indo-Pacific nations. 

By emphasising sustainable practices, the EU positions itself as a global leader, championing environmental stewardship and responsible resource management in the Indo-Pacific region. To comply with EU practices, numerous nations across the Indo-Pacific region grapple with the intricacies of aligning with new industry-specific risks, adjusting to domestic needs, and meeting international regulations and standards. Of particular concern are the stringent measures imposed by the EU on climate, environment, and sustainable practices, e.g. the implementation of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). This presents a formidable challenge for businesses operating within the Indo-Pacific, compelling both foreign and domestic entities to swiftly adapt to the evolving economic landscape. As they navigate the complexities of compliance with emerging sustainability standards, businesses emerge as pivotal stakeholders in shaping the sustainable trajectory of Indo-Pacific trading partners.

Building on the Momentum: A Forward-looking Perspective

The Indo-Pacific region has great potential for prosperity, but it also faces complex geopolitical rivalries that risk challenging the established rules-based order. In light of these multifaceted challenges, the EU and Indo-Pacific countries are poised to seize significant opportunities for collaboration across a spectrum of domains. Within the realm of trade and commerce, both regions stand to gain by leveraging their unique strengths to cultivate mutually advantageous economic partnerships. By prioritising areas such as technology transfer, sustainable development, and infrastructure investment, they can foster innovation and drive growth on a global scale. Moreover, joint endeavours aimed at addressing pressing issues like climate change and environmental conservation hold the potential to yield shared prosperity and ensure climate neutrality. Through initiatives that promote cultural exchange and educational cooperation, stronger bonds between peoples can be forged, facilitating deeper understanding and enhanced collaboration. By harnessing their complementary resources and expertise, the EU and Indo-Pacific nations can forge a robust partnership that not only advances prosperity and stability within their respective regions but also contributes positively to global development and cooperation. Through concerted efforts and enduring alliances, the region can navigate these complexities and forge a path towards a more prosperous and harmonious future.

The 3rd EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum was a resolute affirmation of the EU’s unwavering commitment to navigating global complexities, contributing to a sustainable and secure future in the Indo-Pacific region. The EU intends to capitalise on the momentum generated during the forum to advance stability, security, and prosperity in this critical area of the globe. However, questions and critiques are rising regarding the prioritisation of the EU’s Indo-Pacific agenda vis-à- vis other parts of the world, such as Ukraine and the Middle East. To reaffirm its role as a proactive and influential force in shaping the trajectory of the Indo-Pacific, the EU should sustain collaboration, dialogue, and resilience. Positioned as a pivotal actor, the EU and its member states should continue to prioritise the Indo-Pacific agenda and to keep working towards a sustainable and secure future for and with the region.

Author: Pimwan Pongsuwan, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: EEAS