As the EU unveiled a new strategy to engage with the Indo-Pacific region, its top diplomat struggled over the timing of the announcement — which came just hours after the US and UK launched a new security pact with Australia.
On the very same day when the European Union was set to unveil a brand new strategy to expand its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, all eyes were on Washington and Paris instead of Brussels.
The timing of the announcement could hardly have been more unfortunate: merely hours before EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stepped onto the European Commission's press room to present the strategic paper on Thursday, the United States, surprised the world by launching a new defence pact with the United Kingdom and Australia under the collective name of "AUKUS".
The three Anglophone countries made their intentions clear: they are determined to reinforce intelligence and military cooperation to counter Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
Making matters more awkward for Brussels was the main side effect of the new security partnership: Australia's abandonment of a €50-billion deal with France's Naval Group to build twelve Barracuda submarines.
Canberra will now purchase nuclear-powered submarines from the United States, marking the first time Washington shares submarine technology with another country since it granted privileged access to the UK back in 1958.
The move infuriated Paris, with the Foreign Affairs Ministers, Jean-Yves Le Drian, describing it as a "stab in the back" and comparing US President Joe Biden to his predecessor, Donald Trump, for the "unilateral, brutal, unpredictable decision." For its part, China called the partnership "utterly irresponsible conduct".
The unexpected emergence of AUKUS and the consequent diplomatic row — France even cancelled a commemorative gala in Washington — caught Brussels, and the rest of European capitals, off guard.
"We were not informed, we were not aware," said Josep Borrell on Thursday, scrambling to fend off a barrage of questions from curious journalists. "We regret not having being informed."
"We were not even consulted. I, as [the EU's] High Representative, was not aware of it, and I assume an agreement of such nature wasn’t brought together overnight."
Borrell, who also admitted to discovering AUKUS through the press, tried to turn the tables around and argued the defence pact actually highlighted – not eclipsed – the importance of the EU's new Indo-Pacific strategy.
"I understand current events dominate [the agenda]. However, I would say that, on the contrary, the events make this [EU] strategy even more important because they show the significance of the region and the need for a different engagement."
The "EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific" is a compendium of intentions and ambitions to make the bloc more present, engaged and visible in the region. The vast area includes seven G20 members (Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea and South Africa) as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The 18-page-long strategy outlines a diverse range of actions in the fields of sustainable development, climate change, trade, connectivity, research, security, defence, rule of law and democracy. Brussels depicts the EU's engagement as long-term, principled, inclusive and grounded in international law.
"My feeling is that our partners in the region view the EU as a trusted, consistent and reliable actor," Borrell said.
The paper makes the case for closer cooperation arguing the EU and Indo-Pacific are already "highly interconnected": around 40% of the EU’s foreign trade passes through the South China Sea. The Commission estimates the bloc and the region hold over 70% of global trade in goods and services.
Australia, one of the fully-fledged democracies in the Indo-Pacific, is mentioned numerous times throughout the paper. The EU commits to conclude negotiations over a free trade agreement that Brussels and Canberra launched in June 2018. But Australia's sudden decision to ditch the commercial deal with France immediately cast doubt over the pledge.
"Let's not mix things together," said Borrell when asked about the potential implications of AUKUS over the ongoing negotiations. The latest round of discussions took place in June, with the next appointment expected sometime in autumn.
Trade deals have become increasingly unpopular since the 2008 financial crisis. Some European countries, like France, have embraced a more protectionist approach to international trade and globalisation, calling for greater self-reliance and autonomy.
"Of course, I do understand the extent to which the French government must be disappointed," Borrell added, in a show of solidarity.
The EU's new strategy also envisions a larger naval presence in the region through "joint exercises and port calls with Indo-Pacific partners" and "enhanced naval deployments" of member states. As of today, France is the only EU country with a meaningful presence in the area, home to over 1.5 million French people and 8,000 soldiers.
It's still unclear how the EU's naval engagement will work alongside the AUKUS partnership. The EU and Australia have in place a 2015 agreement that allows Canberra to take part in crisis management operations led by the bloc. But the effects of the US-led security pact could be far-reaching.
"It does have consequences because it's a way to tell the Europeans 'you have no business with the Pacific and this is our affair'. Now, the inconsistency in that is that, for a long time, the US has been asking the Europeans to be more involved [in the region]," Frédéric Grare, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Affairs, told Euronews.
For Grare, who used to work for the French Ministry for Europe and External Affairs with a special focus on Indo-Pacific dynamics, the AUKUS pact is a geopolitical setback for Paris.
"It's clearly a blow to the kind of strategic relationship that the French have been trying to set up in the region," he said. "This contract being scrapped means that a whole set of other relationships are somehow in danger because the political trust between the two countries has been shattered. And this is where the real problem is."
Borrell, however, opted for a more conciliatory tone and avoided gloomy predictions about the future of the EU-US and EU-Australia relations. "Let’s not dramatise, let’s not put everything into question," he said.
The EU's big China dilemma
The Indo-Pacific region has become a central point of interest and discussion for countries all around the world. The booming economic growth of China, paired with its military expansion, has served as a magnet of geopolitical attention.
US President Barack Obama famously initiated a "pivot to Asia" following years of controversial American interventions in the Middle East. After the trade wars launched by Donald Trump, Joe Biden arrived in the White House calling China the "most serious competitor" of the United States.
The Biden administration thinks China poses major challenges on all kinds of fronts, such as technological leadership, industrial competitiveness, trade distortions, human rights abuses and territorial disputes. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, and the repeated efforts from Beijing to hinder a thorough and transparent international investigation have only added fuel to America's desire to challenge China's rise.
Biden, together with his Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has designed a foreign policy centred on forging alliances with like-minded countries (mainly, leading democracies and advanced economies) to counteract the ever-growing influence that China has on the world stage. This year's G7 meeting in Cornwall and NATO summit in Brussels, which took place back-to-back in June, were seen as diplomatic victories for Washington: the communiqué from both high-level encounters featured explicit and purposeful references to China's ambitions and assertive behaviour.
But although EU countries went along with Biden during his European tour in order to maintain and foster the momentum of the post-Trump era, the underlining perspective was, and remains, essentially different. The European Union is not willing to see China through the same lenses as the United States does, a path that some fear could trigger an all-out confrontation.
"Unlike in Washington, in the European Union there is not an apparent tendency towards a strategic rivalry that could lead to a kind of new 'Cold War', nor towards a broad economic decoupling," Borrell wrote in his blog last year, referring to the 20th-century clash between the US and the Soviet Union.
Instead, Brussels prefers to promote a more nuanced and flexible vision. A 2020 strategic EU paper defines China as a "cooperation partner, a negotiation partner, an economic competitor and a systematic rival", a characterisation that many EU officials quote to this day.
The list of adjectives, which at first glance appear to be contradictory, reflect the complex role that China plays in the 21st century. For this reason, the EU favours a malleable approach that can adapt according to the issue on the table.
On the one hand, the EU needs China to fight climate change and reform the multilateral system. More importantly, both sides need each other to exchange exports and imports and nurture their domestic industry. (Last year, China became the EU's biggest trade partner for goods). But on the other hand, Brussels and Bejing are at odds over human rights, regional stability and technological governance.
This multifaceted engagement was once again underlined in the EU's new Indo-Pacific strategy, which promises bilateral engagement for common challenges "while pushing back where fundamental disagreements exist" with China.
Although their approaches might differ in practice, both the EU and the US are making their pitches to the Indo-Pacific under the looming shadow of Beijing.
"[The] new EU - Indo-Pacific strategy is a milestone," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her annual State of the Union speech delivered before the European Parliament.
"It reflects the growing importance of the region to our prosperity and security. But also the fact that autocratic regimes use it to try to expand their influence."