Unveiling the EU’s Global Gateway Strategy: Expanding Indo-Pacific Infrastructure Landscapes

On 25-26 October 2023 the EU held its first Global Gateway Forum in Brussels, gathering government and other representatives from the European Union and its partner countries around the world, including from the private sector, civil society, financial institutions, experts and international organisations. The Forum was attended by representatives from more than 20 partner countries, including 40 leaders and ministers. With pressing issues relating to global investment in infrastructure on the agenda, the Forum saw the EU sign financial agreements on clean energy with different partners, including Asian countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh and the Philippines, consolidating its EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Highlighted as a promising beginning, critics have wondered whether the EU can gather the required internal support to obtain concrete results on the ground and attract the right investments.

This op-ed will focus on the EU’s initiatives in the Indo-Pacific via the Global Gateway strategy, exploring opportunities for enhancing its impact by aligning efforts with established regional infrastructure frameworks.

The Global Gateway Forum

In late 2021, the EU revealed its Global Gateway strategy to enhance smart, clean and secure connections within the digital, energy, and transport sectors. Additionally, it aims to fortify global health, education, and enhance research and innovation. The Global Gateway is an extension of the EU’s 2018 EU Connectivity Strategy aimed at enhancing sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity between Europe and Asia in the aforementioned sectors of transportation, digitalisation, energy and human connectivity. The strategy has been broadened to cover also other regions in the world including Africa and Latin America, maintaining a focus on building sustainable connections. Through its Team Europe approach, the EU is mobilising up to 300 billion EUR in infrastructure development investments between 2021 and 2027. This approach represents the cooperation between major actors in the EU and the combination of their resources and expertise to make a greater impact in global development initiatives. These actors include the European Institutions (the European Commission, European External Action Service,…), the EU Member States and their financial institutions, as well as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Moreover, the Global Gateway promotes a set of values guiding its investments, such as the rule of law, human rights and international norms and standards. It is also in line with the United Nations’ Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals, along with the commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement. 

Europe’s Global Gateway platform aims to offer sustainable, transparent investments and mutually beneficial partnerships with countries in regions all over the world, including in the Indo-Pacific. Building on the 2021 EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the EU is set to contribute to the region’s prosperity by further investing in its digital and green transition. Through its Indo-Pacific Strategy, the European Union recognises the importance of building partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific sharing interests in upholding a rules-based international order, to achieve prosperity and tackle global challenges such as climate change.

The Global Gateway Forum 2023 was therefore welcomed as a good opportunity for leaders from the EU and partner countries, as well as private sector representatives to meet and discuss the future of their partnerships in global infrastructure projects, advancing concrete action on the ground. Among the Indo-Pacific attendees and discussants, the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam, Tran Hong Ha, addressed the Forum on the green energy transition. The Secretary of Finance from the Philippines, Benjamin Diokno, intervened on digital infrastructure, while Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addressed the audience through a video message during the plenary opening session. The Forum facilitated the occasion for Vietnam and the European Investment Bank to sign a memorandum of understanding to support their Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) by establishing a multi-projects credit facility worth 500 million EUR. The JETP is an agreement between Vietnamese leaders and an International Partners Group, including all G7 members plus the EU, Norway and Denmark to support Vietnam’s 2050 decarbonisation goals and its transition to clean energy. Furthermore, alongside the Forum the Philippines and the EU signed a 60 million EUR Financing Agreement for the Green Economy Programme. The EU is also contributing to bring secure and reliable digital connections to the Philippines through the Digital Economy Package (worth 20 million EUR) and the Digital Connectivity Team Europe. Finally, the EU and Bangladesh also signed agreements worth 400 million EUR for renewable energy projects to support the country’s sustainable green transition.

Additionally, the Global Gateway is also supporting projects in Asia at the multilateral level, such as the ASEAN Green Initiative and the ASEAN Team Europe Initiative on Sustainable Connectivity

The EU’s Global Gateway and Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific 

Yet, the EU’s recent Global Gateway strategy is not the only existing framework promoting infrastructure development in the Indo-Pacific region. There is Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) vision, which was first mentioned by Prime Minister Abe at the Indian Parliament in August 2007 where he exposed a new regional order with a “broader Asia” at the “confluence of the two seas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans”. Japan’s vision was to build a more conducive regional order and enhance connectivity, prosperity and stability in the region with like-minded countries like the US, India and Australia. After having undergone some evolutions throughout the years, Japan’s new plan for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” was last announced in March 2023 by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA). However, the core concept remains the same: to “enhance the connectivity of the Indo-Pacific region, foster the region into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, free from force or coercion, and make it prosperous.”

The EU’s Global Gateway and Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” are both aiming to close the infrastructure gap and increase prosperity through development and connectivity projects in common areas such as climate change, (green) energy and digitalisation. Both frameworks emphasise the importance of promoting a rules-based international order upholding values such as democracy, the rule of law, transparency and good governance as well as human rights. Another common aspect between the frameworks is the focus on local populations in the implementation of projects. The FOIP describes the essential requirement to create “necessary conditions for the survival, welfare, and life with dignity of individual people anywhere in the world” and the EU’s Global Gateway on delivering “lasting social and economic benefits to local communities”. The FOIP also contains a pillar for the maintenance of aerial and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, whereas the Global Gateway only focuses on infrastructure development projects.

Given the great similarities, Japan is considered a key ally in implementing the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, in September 2019 Japan and the EU signed a Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure. Prime Minister Kishida’s virtual address at the Global Gateway Forum 2023 demonstrated their engagement to produce high-quality infrastructure investment for the sustainable development of partner countries. The G7 Hiroshima Summit held in May 2023 was also the occasion for Japan to host an event including the private sector on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII, a shared G7 commitment to advance public and private investments in sustainable, inclusive, resilient and quality infrastructure). The event’s factsheet describes Japan’s and European countries’ infrastructure projects and how they overlap, portraying potential areas of cooperation. 

Fist of all, Japan and the EU are already participating in the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) in Vietnam with Japan financing 25 million USD for the construction of an 88 megawatts wind power plant in Ninh Thuan province, whereas the European Investment Bank signed a memorandum of understanding with Vietnam to support the JETP. The EU and Japan could thus increase their collaboration to assure greater cohesion between their green-energy infrastructure projects in Vietnam. The EU and Japan could potentially also join their initiatives in the Philippines, where the Japan International Cooperation Agency has been promoting the development of transportation infrastructure, while the EU (with the Global Gateway Team Europe Initiative on Digital Connectivity) has been developing the first Southeast Asian space cooperation programme —the Copernicus Capacity Support Action Programme for the Philippines to advance disaster mitigation and climate change adaptation. The European Commission and Japan have also signed a Copernicus Cooperation Arrangement “to facilitate reciprocal data sharing of Earth Observation data”. The EU and Japan could therefore further include collaboration on their infrastructure projects in the space sector in the Indo-Pacific region.

What about China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a vast global infrastructure and economic development strategy launched by the Chinese government in 2013. It contains two components: the “Silk Road Economic Belt”, focused on improving infrastructure and connectivity along the ancient overland Silk Road routes, linking China to Europe through Central Asia, the Middle East, and Russia; and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, aiming at strengthening maritime infrastructure, connectivity, and cooperation among countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The initiative grew rapidly throughout the years and involved 154 countries as of September 2023. 

Criticism has arisen over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) due to concerns surrounding “debt-trap diplomacy,” increasing developing nations’ debt burdens, leading to heightened strategic dependence on China. Concerns have also been raised regarding the environmental impact, geopolitical implications and transparency surrounding some of the initiative’s projects. 

When it comes to possible cooperation in view of the EU’s Global Gateway, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hinted at a possible linkage between the two global infrastructure initiatives, while detailing the outcome of the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing a week before the EU’s Global Gateway Forum. However, a full-fledged partnership between the EU and China seems complicated and rather unlikely for now. The EU is determined to provide “quality investments without undermining countries’ sovereignty” that are “in line with the European model of sustainable and transparent investment”. Since the EU is attaching fundamental values to the elaboration of projects and China strongly abides by the concept of non-intervention in other countries’ affairs, aligning the two approaches is a complex exercise. 

Given its de-risking strategy and aim to increase its strategic autonomy, the EU is also trying to reduce its “overdependence on the Chinese market and supply chains”. Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, was the only EU leader present at the October 2023 Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. This stands in contrast with the second BRI Forum for International Cooperation that was held in April 2019, in which seven leaders of EU Member States took part (i.e. of Austria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Greece Hungary, Italy, and Portugal). This exemplifies the current complexities in the relations between the EU and China and their changing dynamics since 2019, with the EU considering China concurrently as a cooperation and dialogue partner, an economic competitor and systemic rival.

The Global Gateway in the Indo-Pacific

The Global Gateway Forum 2023 managed to reach its objective to promote dialogue between government representatives and stakeholders on infrastructure investment with an additional 3 billion EUR worth of new agreements. The inauguration of the Forum heralded promising prospects as it aims to establish itself as a significant platform for shaping international development agendas. However, some concerns were raised regarding the commitment of EU countries to the Forum. Overall, many EU member states did not send their heads of state. Instead, Germany was represented by its climate secretary, and France dispatched its development secretary. In contrast, partner nations like Bangladesh and Vietnam, among others, were represented by their respective presidents or prime ministers. Additionally, critics have raised questions on the lack of information and guidelines on the EU side on the concrete functioning and implementation of the Global Gateway. 

Nevertheless, the Global Gateway remains an ambitious plan to make the EU a strategic investment partner around the world. With the launch of the Global Gateway Forum, the EU is showing its desire to advance the implementation of its infrastructure projects. By fostering collaboration between the public and private sectors and enhancing coordination among EU countries and institutions through the Team Europe approach, the EU could get closer to attaining its sustainable development goals. 

In light of infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific, the EU should consider enhancing cooperation with Japan, a longstanding contributor to regional infrastructure development. Japan’s substantial commitment, evidenced by a total of 259 billion USD in ongoing projects across Southeast Asia, underscores its significant role in this domain. The EU and Japan should deepen their governmental cooperation mechanisms to coordinate their overlapping initiatives in Vietnam, the Philippines and Bangladesh, in sectors including the green energy transition and digital infrastructure. The EU and Japan signed a EU-Japan Green Alliance in 2021 and the Japan-EU Digital Partnership in 2022 committing to achieve green and digital growth. These agreements could provide a basis for discussing enhanced cooperation in these sectors in South and Southeast Asia.

China has also developed several infrastructure projects through the Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia, including three wind-solar plants in the Philippines and one in Vietnam, as well as a multitude of transport corridors throughout the region. Increasing connectivity and supporting the green transition of developing countries are crucial objectives of the Global Gateway Strategy as well. Consequently, the EU and  China could benefit from each other’s experience in the region and explore synergies between their respective infrastructure frameworks. With this in mind, the EU and China could resume constructive dialogue in order to build mutual trust, increase transparency and explore potential cooperation in the field of infrastructure building and connectivity. 

Overall, the EU should advance and strengthen the efficiency of its Global Gateway projects in the Indo-Pacific, including by coordinating its initiatives with other partners active in the region, as well as enhancing involvement of the private sector. Determining synergies and the potential for enhanced cooperation between the Global Gateway, other development frameworks, and actors on the ground could significantly bolster the impact of the EU’s Global Gateway projects in the region and within the Indo-Pacific connectivity landscape. The first EU Global Gateway Forum set the scene for the EU’s endeavoured engagement with its regional partners. The agreements signed on its sidelines thereby paved the way for concrete action and implementation of the projects included in the Global Gateway. While the road to completion may still be long, the Forum laid the foundations for the EU’s sustainable infrastructure and connectivity framework in the Indo-Pacific.   

Author: Dilara Kasikci, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo Credits: Pexels