The Quad Leaders’ Summit: Where Does the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy Fit?

As the EU is asserting itself as an Indo-Pacific player by working with existing multilateral groupings, it maintains a degree of strategic ambiguity, especially regarding China. While this ambiguous stance may limit cooperation with the Quad on traditional security issues, the Quad and the EU hold the potential to jointly deliver on several, cross-domain transnational issues.

On 24 September 2021 leaders from Australia, India, Japan, and the US convened under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s (Quad) aegis to discuss and lay out instruments to tackle the most pressing challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. These include vaccine distribution, connectivity, climate change, emerging technology and cybersecurity, and education. The recently published “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” strikingly echoes the same priorities, making the EU a natural partner for the grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies. Yet, besides acknowledging this compatibility, the latest Quad’s Joint Statement does not go further to outline areas of convergence and cooperation with the EU. For its part, the EU has declared the goal of seeking coordination with Quad partners, but similarly avoided further elaboration. 

This vagueness of intents symbolises the obstacles for EU-Quad cooperation to move beyond declarations. Indeed, as the EU is asserting itself as an Indo-Pacific actor by working with existing multilateral groupings, it maintains a degree of strategic ambiguity, especially regarding China. While this equivocal stance may favour cooperation with partners unwilling to poke Beijing, it narrows the likelihood of elevating coordination with the Quad, which is vastly considered as a counterbalance to China’s influence.  

This article examines the potential for EU-Quad synergies by outlining the points of common ground between the two groups’ priorities. Subsequently, it will examine the EU’s ambiguity towards China in the security and defence sphere. Finally, it will explore the prospects for enhanced EU-Quad cooperation, fleshing out the areas of potential alignment and disagreement.

The Quad and the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: A Perfect Match?

At a first glance, the Quad’s joint statement and the EU’s recently launched strategy for the Indo-Pacific seem like a match made in heaven. Chiefly, both the quadrilateral grouping and the EU have stressed enhanced vaccine production and distribution as a priority, pledging further donations and reinstating cooperation under the Quad Vaccine Partnership and the dedicated Experts Group, in addition to the COVAX facility.  Emphasis on clean energy and transport is also an important area of overlap and joint interest. Both the EU and the Quad aim to ensure zero-emission transport routes and reduce the costs of renewable hydrogen use. Moreover, the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the Quad’s priorities chime also with regard to infrastructure investment, as the two groups committed to the “build back better world” (B3W) initiative with G7 partners. The EU and the Quad have almost identically established the objective of working with “like-minded partners” to contrive standards for emerging technologies – e.g. artificial intelligence and biotechnology scanning – in respect of human rights and democratic values. Finally, securing critical supply chains – especially for semiconductors and critical materials – is another common objective.

Yet, despite reciprocal mentions and acknowledgments of complementarity in the aforementioned documents, so far the Quad does not seem to consider the EU and its Member States as major partners in security and defence issues. For its part, the EU remains reluctant to fully embrace the Quad’s push to stem China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. This may limit the prospects of EU-Quad cooperation in security and defence, projecting the EU as a half-hearted, risk-averse partner.

Expectations and Realities of EU Military Involvement

It is worth recalling that, while an EU military step-up in the Indo-Pacific may positively contribute towards the security of sea lanes of communications and the improvement of human security, such commitment is not a supranational EU prerogative and depends on consensus and will of its Member States. Hence, the EU’s military involvement in  the region must be ascertained against its Members’ independent contributions. As of now, only three Member States – France, Germany, and the Netherlands – have an Indo-Pacific strategy of their own and ultimately pushed forward a comprehensive EU strategy for the region. Moreover, these strategic documents are the first ever published European strategies focusing on the Indo-Pacific, and are all relatively new – France published its defence strategy in 2019, while Germany and the Netherlands followed in 2020. The EU’s approach to the region is thus only at a nascent stage. 

Nevertheless, EU Member States have been eager to contribute to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight, and help local partners improve maritime domain awareness capabilities. France has been the most active in this regard. Seeing China’s expanding influence as a destabilising factor, Paris has been a fixture in surveillance operations in the East and South China Sea. In 2019, a French aircraft carrier called at Singapore during the Shangri-La Dialogue and took part in multilateral exercises with Australia, India, and Japan both bilaterally and jointly under the Quad’s banner. Most recently, in February 2021 a French nuclear-powered submarine traversed the South China Sea. Germany and the Netherlands have also taken part in operations in the Indo-Pacific, with Berlin sending its frigate Bayern on a 6-month mission through the region and the Dutch HNLMS Evertsen sailing to Japan to join a UK-led mission via Indonesia for a diplomatic stop.

Yet, the EU cautiously refrains from pushing back China too vehemently. France aims to amplify its voice via the EU to pose the bloc as an attenuating actor between the bidirectional squeeze caused by the Sino-American competition. To do so, it needs to get  regional partners – who often balk at siding with one of the two rivalling camps – on board. This means stressing the economic and environmental legs of its own Indo-Pacific strategy instead of narrowly focusing on security and defence. Similarly, Germany emphasises inclusivity, rejecting containment as inconducive to the kind of transnational cooperation needed to tackle global challenges. Particularly telling was Berlin’s original decision to include a port call in Shanghai – promptly rejected by Beijing – on the frigate Bayern’s itinerary, much to the Quad’s chagrin.  

The EU Indo-Pacific strategy echoes this cautious multidimensional approach, which rhymes with the Quad’s recent rhetorical turn to a “free, open, inclusive, and resilient” Indo Pacific. However, since its revival in 2017, the Quad is seen as a counterbalance to Beijing’s growing assertiveness. Despite the grouping’s functional expansion beyond security and defence, the regional perception remains that of an anti-China initiative. Most importantly, Quad members ramped up their joint military exercises, signalling their will to push back more decisively to Chinese coercion and territorial claims. The EU does not appear to be willing to join the fray and squarely side with the Quad, for this stance would not only be internally divisive for the EU itself, but would also unsettle partners such as South Korea or ASEAN states that largely benefit from economic engagement with China. Indeed, in its Indo-Pacific strategy, the EU emphasises “cooperation, not confrontation” in engaging with Beijing. However, such prudence risks sending signals of European timidity to resident powers with greater proximity to China.

Most prominently, the day before the EU strategy’s publication, Australia shunned France as a military partner, scrapping a defence deal with a French state-owned Naval Group and signing up to a trilateral partnership with Britain and the US under the AUKUS framework. This new initiative does not only provide Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines – instead of the diesel-powered French ones – and cruise missiles, but sets the basis for deeper intelligence-sharing and technological cooperation between the three signatories. Thus, the EU is seen as a junior partner in security and defence, especially by those Indo-Pacific actors – i.e. the Quad members – that are willing to stand up more forcefully to the China challenge.

(Other) Prospects of EU-Quad Cooperation

The challenges to the region are not only emanating from China. A reality acknowledged by both the Quad and the EU. Transnational issues – above all climate change and the fight against COVID-19 – require the region’s full participation. Excluding China would undermine the EU and the Quad’s very same goals. 

Moreover, as previously mentioned, the areas of functional overlap between the Quad and the EU are abound. In technology, both groupings aim to build more resilient critical supply chains and set global standards centred around the respect for human rights and democracy. Furthermore, tackling the growing demand for infrastructure in Asia calls for a pooling of expertise and resources of the kind seen with the launch of the B3W initiative at this summer’s G7 summit in Cornwall. According to the Asian Development Bank, meeting the infrastructural needs of developing Asia requires a yearly total investment of 1.7 trillion USD until 2030. No country alone can address this challenge. 

Finally, although the launch of AUKUS suggests that for some of the Quad members the EU is a minor security partner, it is worth highlighting that the Anglo-Australian-American trilateral security pact is merely one initiative in the kaleidoscope of the shifting Indo-Pacific security architecture. The EU is a longstanding security partner for many countries in the region. It is part of the ASEAN Regional Forum – the most inclusive security dialogue in East Asia – and of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) dialogue. Moreover, EU Member States have established bilateral security and defence partnerships with several countries in the region. 

These recent events may thus risk underlining the incongruencies between the Quad and the EU, distracting the observer from the bigger picture. As both the EU and the Quad acknowledge, the challenges of the Indo-Pacific region are too big to be addressed individually. The constantly growing constellation of cooperation mechanisms is a clear sign of this fact. While many of these instruments may seem redundant or inefficient, the scope for collaboration and alignment with like-minded partners remains nevertheless large. 

Author: Walter Brenno Colnaghi, EIAS Junior Researcher

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