Centre of Gravity: Security and Defence in the Indo-Pacific - What Role for the European Union

CSDS In-Depth | December 2022

EDITED BY: Daniel Fiott and Luis Simón

WITH CONTRIBUTIONS BY: Céline Pajon, Jagannath Panda, Eva Pejsova, Phillip Shetler-Jones, and Michito Tsuruoka.



The Indo-Pacific region has emerged as the centre of gravity of global military competition, economic growth, and technological innovation. Whatever happens in the Indo-Pacific is likely to have a pervasive impact on the structure and future of international order, and the norms and institutions Europeans hold so dear. Moreover, as the war in Ukraine shows, Indo-Pacific actors like China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, or Australia can have an impact on European security dynamics. Europe’s growing attention to the Indo-Pacific is therefore explained by both the region’s centrality in global politics and its increasing relevance to European geopolitics. 

In recent years, several European countries have begun to devise strategies towards the Indo-Pacific region, and to strengthen their presence therein. Such moves are welcome. However, Europeans’ ability to exercise a meaningful impact on the Indo-Pacific will depend to a large extent on coordination, not least in the framework of the European Union, which can bring to bear critical mass and an extensive suite of capabilities in key areas, including trade, technology, but also, potentially, security, and defence. 

Taking the 2021 Joint Communication for the EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific as a point of departure, this study outlines a vision for the EU’s approach to the Indo-Pacific in the area of security and defence, focusing on three concrete areas: maritime security, non-proliferation, and hybrid threats. Going forward, a key challenge for the EU will be to reconcile its traditional commitment to cooperation and multilateralism with the reality of growing geopolitical competition in the Indo-Pacific, and the increasing relevance of exclusive formats of cooperation, which often coalesce around the United States and China. In this regard, it is necessary to understand how the Union’s approaches to cooperation can adapt to and take advantage of emerging trends in security and defence multilateralism (or lack thereof) in the Indo-Pacific region. The study poses three questions: 1) How can meeting the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategic objectives in security and defence help the Union’s multilateral agenda in the region? 2) Are there any trade-offs between pursuing the EU’s interests in these policy areas with the expressed objective of promoting multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific? and 3) What is the future of multilateralism in the region when seen through the prism of security and defence? In what ways may the EU have to adapt its approach?

The analysis results in 20 specific recommendations. It urges the Union to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific by enhancing its physical presence in the Korean Peninsula to combat proliferation, deploying as part of Free of Navigation Operations in the region, developing naval capabilities and strategic enablers, conducting naval exercises with partners in new areas and supporting nuclear safeguard initiatives. The study recommends that the EU plan for the future by looking at increasing the Coordinated Maritime Presence to the South-East Asia and North-East Asia regions, and planning for how the European Peace Facility could be used in a Taiwan contingency. 

Clearly, the EU needs to ensure coherence between various initiatives such as creating continuity between the Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and the forthcoming revision of the EU Maritime Security Strategy. However, the Union urgently needs to strengthen its role in multilateral and minilateral fora including by both developing relations with the Quad and continuing to raise security and defence issues through the ASEAN Regional Forum. Additionally, the study recommends that the EU organise an annual ministerial meeting with Indo-Pacific states. The EU also needs to work with partners to build capacity in the areas of countering seaborne crime; illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; and hybrid threats, as well as supporting law enforcement and border management initiatives. Such efforts can be complemented by military-educational exchanges between military staff in the region and partners from the Indo-Pacific should be invited to mutually develop and participate in tabletop exercises for crisis response in the region.