The Indo-Pacific region, the interconnected space between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, has grown into the world’s economic and strategic centre of gravity, with the world-leading nations trying to ensure they have the right strategy in place to make the most of relationships with the region. Both the EU and the UK have acknowledged in their foreign policy strategies that additional efforts are needed to enhance relations with the Indo-Pacific partners. Recent aggressive actions from China are also pressing world leaders to re-think their policy and identify actions to ensure the stability and security in the region and beyond.
India and China are the UK’s two main points of intersection with the EU in the Indo-Pacific. India, for economic enhancement and a stronger partnership when facing external challenges triggered by the Chinese expansionist territorial claims in the Pacific region but also human rights abuses. With the UK taking on the Presidency of the G7 group of nations in 2021, is there scope for the UK and the EU to work together in a post-Brexit world? This week’s Euro Channel explores just that.
The Indo-Pacific region – Where are the EU and UK at?
On 16th March 2021, the UK government published its Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development, and Foreign Policy, in which it revamps the Brexiteer ideology of a Global Britain. The paper states that the UK needs to engage more deeply with Indo-Pacific partners for economic benefits, security and values. It also states that the UK will partner and support others as necessary to pursue their goals including looking for ways to work more closely with European partners, such as France and Germany.
On the other side of the Channel, the EU is also paying increasing attention to this region. It was in fact one of the main priorities of Portugal, the country that is now leading for a period of 6 months the Presidency of the Council of the EU. On 19th April 2021, the Council of the EU approved conclusions on a EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, setting out the EU’s intention to reinforce its strategic focus, presence and actions in this region of prime strategic importance for EU interests.
The aim is to contribute to regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development, at a time of rising challenges and tensions in the region. In one of his public interventions, French President, Emmanuel Macron has called China “the elephant in the room” for which a political approach is needed when dealing with the Indo-Pacific. A political approach, seen as a common front taken by world powers or in other words, an Asia-Pacific way of multilateralism. But could this be possible when each of them pursues individual economic interests?
India – who will make it first?
Post-Brexit, signing a trade deal with India is one of the main priorities for the British government. This mission isn’t as easy as initially envisaged, with the government only announcing the ‘shared intent to begin work’. All this, while the EU has already put in place a Summit with Indian partners taking place in Porto on Saturday, 8th May.
The Summit will officially announce that both sides are resuming their negotiations for a “balanced, ambitious, comprehensive and mutually beneficial trade agreement which would respond to the current challenges” (as the draft statement says). While there is place for everyone to enhance economic partnerships with India, it is also clear that India on its side is considering looking for alternative ways to reach Europe, not seeing the UK as the main point of entry following Brexit.
Nevertheless, one of the main triggers that incentivises India to speed up their trade talks with world leading economies is China’s Wolf warrior approach – that is its growing aggressive assertiveness with its neighbours but also worldwide.
The role of G7 in fostering close collaboration between the EU and the UK
The G7 group of nations have made the Indo-Pacific a priority for their Summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall on 11-13th June 2021. At the UK’s initiative, the Summit will also be joined by Australia, India, the Republic of Korea and South Africa, as well as the chair of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), reflecting the strong interest for the Indo-Pacific region by the G7.
On 5th May, the G7 released a statement in which it reiterates the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific which is inclusive and based on the rule of law, democratic values, territorial integrity, transparency, the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. It also highlights their intention to work together with ASEAN and other countries on these endeavours through a wide range of activities. Beijing reacted quickly rejecting any accusations of human rights abuse and economic coercion, accusing the G7 of “blatantly meddling” in China’s internal affairs, calling their remarks groundless.
In a post-Brexit world, is there place for a common front?
China is seen by the EU as a systemic rival in the Indo-Pacific and there is a shared concern with the UK over current external challenges. In this context, the G7 could play a key role but also be the main stage for the EU and the UK to discuss matters related to the Indo-Pacific and agree on a common front in their foreign and security policy. Once Brexit disruptions are settled down, could this be a solid basis for a strong partnership? The ‘right timing’ for this is definitely approaching.
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