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Europe’s Indo-Pacific pivot

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EU and Russian flags are seen through broken glass this illustration taken 13 April 2022. (Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic)

In Brief

Within two months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has inadvertently achieved more for promoting European unity than the past two decades of efforts by EU leaders. The invasion has brought the fight between the ‘free world’ and authoritarianism to the fore, creating impetus for Europe’s Indo–Pacific pivot.


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The elimination of Russia as a reliable third player between the US and China compounds deep-rooted developments in European relations. A more inward-looking US involving the Trump administration’s two-front trade war against Europe and China is a factor impacting European relations. European foreign ministries are already factoring in a return of Trump, or a ‘Trump-lite’ president in 2024. The new mantra of domestic and pan-European economic nationalism has emerged amid the far-reaching consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on supply networks.

On 24 April 2022, pro-European incumbent President Emmanuel Macron was re-elected in France. His anti-European opponent, Marine Le Pen, was soundly defeated. The same day in Slovenia, a pro-European coalition ousted a Kremlin-friendly government. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the remaining outlier for his pro-Putin sympathies, alone among the Visegrad group whose other three members are resolutely anti-Russian.

Among the unintended consequences of Putin’s invasion is the probable entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO, creating further overlap between EU and NATO membership. European strategic autonomy has taken on new urgency and is closer to becoming a reality with Germany’s decision to increase its defence budget to 2 per cent of GDP. This has been accompanied by the purchase of weaponry from the EU’s common budget. European strategic autonomy never meant autarky, but complementarity with NATO and Russia’s war in Ukraine has made this possible. There is clearly a new cohesion and a shared purpose in the transatlantic partnership.

Putin’s unprovoked invasion of a sovereign European nation has engendered a re-examination of security questions. There is an awareness that Europe’s much vaunted ‘normative’ and ‘market’ power has been found wanting — ‘speaking softly and carrying a thick cheque book’ is insufficient. A reconciliation has begun between European countries who have not been hesitant in the use of military force, like the United Kingdom and France, with their more pacifist neighbours. Solidarity with former Soviet bloc members has also gained renewed vigour.

Even before the Russian invasion, Sino–European relations were cooling, evident from the description of China as a partner, competitor and strategic rival in the EU’s March 2019 Strategy on China. This became obvious during the virtual EU–China Summit on 1 April 2022, when President Xi made it clear that China would not distance itself from Russia. From a European perspective, the bipolar configuration of the Cold War has returned, with the concept of a ‘free world’ versus an authoritarian world giving further impetus to transatlantic convergence.

Even if the war drags on and Putin is not totally defeated, other long-term factors are at play affecting Europe’s engagement in Asia. The disruption to global trade caused by Trump’s tariff wars and the pandemic has seen a turn particularly towards Southeast Asia. This is exemplified by the German strategy paper on the Indo–Pacific and Chancellor Schultz’s visit to New Delhi where security questions were openly discussed.

After the AUKUS announcement, France has sought to compensate for its disillusionment with Australia as a key Indo-Pacific partner by turning towards Japan and Indonesia. The EU continues to pursue free trade agreements (FTA), notably with Australia, while London promotes its Global Britain rhetoric through the recent visit of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to New Delhi signing an FTA.

These developments were not initiated by Putin’s irredentist actions. The end of European naivety on China predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine, sparked by Beijing’s behaviour within Europe itself, such as the conflict with Lithuania over its pro-Taiwanese sympathies. As a frontline state against Russia, Lithuania is no longer peripheral but central to European unity.

The various European strategies have diverging emphases. As a ‘resident middle power’, France has placed greater emphasis on hard security questions than Germany and the Netherlands who, as ‘mercantile powers’, focussed on trade and investment. But the war in Ukraine is uniting these views. Germany’s refusal to provide motors for Chinese-built submarines ordered by Thailand suggests such a change. To wean India from its reliance on Russian arms, the sale of European military equipment and technology was prominent during European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s 25 April visit to New Delhi to relaunch EU–India FTA negotiations.

While governments in Asia may be unwilling to fully condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, much of civil society takes a different view. As a recent poll by ISEAS demonstrates, Europe is perceived as an honest broker in a bipolar world between China and the United States. European political and business leaders can expect to benefit from this environment now that the untrustworthiness of Russia has been revealed.

David Camroux is Honorary Senior Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor at the Centre for International Studies, Sciences Po. He is the co-coordinator of the Franco-German Observatory of the Indo-Pacific.

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