Europe marks distance from Indo-Pacific strategy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for the special meeting of the European Council, Brussels, October 1, 2020

The European Council special meeting in Brussels on 1st October had Turkey, Belarus, Russia and China on its agenda. The foreign-policy decisions of the summit — comprising the heads of state or government of all EU countries, the European Council President, and the European Commission President —show a moderate line, which broadly conforms to the German approach. 

In regard of Turkey, France has been pressing for tough measures to “punish” Ankara for its recent actions in the East Mediterranean, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. But the EU refrained from imposing any sanctions and instead proposes to constructively engage Turkey in the short and medium term, given that country’s crucial importance to European interests. 

Unsurprisingly, EU supports its member states Greece and Cyprus in their disputes with Turkey, but on the other hand also intends “to launch a positive political EU-Turkey agenda with a specific emphasis on the modernisation of the Customs Union and trade facilitation, people to people contacts, High level dialogues, continued cooperation on migration issues.” 

The EU has mooted a novel forum — a Multilateral Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean. An indicative agenda has been cited — maritime delimitation, security, energy, migration and economic cooperation. Will the proposed forum invite participation by countries outside the EU-Turkey ambit? 

A security architecture for Eastern Mediterranean is an idea whose time seems to have come. Is this another step toward crafting a European identity independent of the transatlantic alliance? Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron, while on a visit to the Baltic States earlier this week, urged Europe to seek a dialogue with Russia to enhance the continent’s security rather than relying primarily on the NATO military alliance. 

The AP quoted him as saying at a press conference in Riga, “Our collective security imposes that, given geography, we need to discuss with Russians.” Macron argued that Europeans should be able to rethink their relation with Russia despite recent tensions after the poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. 

This mellowed approach toward Moscow gets reflected in the EU summit’s decisions on Thursday regarding Belarus and Navalny case. Thus, there isn’t going to be any EU sanctions against President Alexander Lukashenko; no freeze on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia; no more blame game on the Navalny case.   

Without doubt, the maximum attention goes to the EU’s perspectives on China. The invitation letter from European Council president President Charles Michel ahead of the special meeting on 1-2 October 2020 had highlighted that China would top the agenda: 

“We will then use our first working session for a debate on EU-China relations, following the EU-China leaders’ meeting via video conference on 14 September. We want to work with China on tackling major global challenges such as the COVID 19 pandemic and climate change. We also want to insist on a more balanced and reciprocal economic relationship, ensuring a level playing field. And we will continue to promote our values and standards.”  

Significantly, even as the EU leaders were gathering in Brussels on Thursday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived at the Vatican to canvass support for the Indo-Pacific strategy, but the Pope refused to grant an audience to the evangelist. 

Succinctly put, the EU summit has stuck to the established path of constructively engaging China in a mutually beneficial relationship with accent on trade and economic ties while also registering its differences with Beijing on the human rights issues and underscoring that China is an indispensable partner in meeting global challenges of vital interest to the European community. 

The salience lies in the EU distancing itself from the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy as a realistic approach to meeting the challenges and opportunities posed by China’s rise. In the European estimation, it is simply  impractical to try to isolate China and, importantly, China’s rise on the global stage is a compelling geopolitical reality that demands engagement to mutual benefit. 

Thus, the EU summit urges China “to rebalance the economic relationship and achieve reciprocity”; to advance the negotiations leading to “an ambitious” EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement; and “to deliver on previous commitments to address market access barriers, to make progress on overcapacity and engage in negotiations on industrial subsidies at the World Trade Organization.” 

On the other hand, the EU summit flagged its “serious concerns about the human rights situation” in China, especially in relation to Hong Kong and in regard of “treatment of people belonging to minorities.” But then all this has been packed into a single sentence, which also reminds us there is nothing new here other than stated positions. Clearly, life moves on. 

The general expectation is that a Biden presidency will pivot back to the transatlantic alliance as a key platform for the US global strategies. From such a perspective, Biden, the consummate conciliator, can expect some difficult negotiations ahead with European capitals in regard of the policies toward China and Russia, whom the Trump administration bracketed as “revisionist powers”.

The European mood has dramatically changed since the coronavirus pandemic erupted. Europe’s road to recovery remains uncertain. The crisis is multi-layered — political, economic, financial, and societal. At such a cataclysmic moment, Europe has no desire to get entangled in geopolitical projects vis-a-vis Russia or China.

The emphasis is on harnessing global cooperation to stabilise the economy. The summit on Thursday “encourages China to assume greater responsibility in dealing with global challenges” such as climate change, biodiversity, “multilateral response” to Covid-19 pandemic, debt relief, etc. 

The European approach will significantly influence the foreign policy directions of a Biden presidency. As the ‘Quad’ foreign ministers meet in Japan next Tuesday in what is regarded as a significant leap forward for a collective strategy against China, a cloud of uncertainty appears as regards the forum’s efficacy itself. With the EU and the ASEAN out of it — and very soon Pompeo, too — Quad looks like Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet without the Prince.