Europe's focus on Asia-Pacific powers continues to grow

Europe's focus on Asia-Pacific powers continues to grow

German, Chinese and European flags fly in the wind from the Chancellery in Berlin. (AFP)

As Europe enters a major election year, domestic politics in the region are on hold ahead of the big vote ahead. However, many foreign policy actions are still underway with the potential to reshape global politics in the coming months.
Indeed, after Russia's aggression on Ukraine and the Western plan to „de-risk” China, the EU and non-EU countries are conducting a fundamental reassessment of their global relations.
This includes a reassessment of resource-rich regions such as Latin America, where the EU hopes to strike a trade and investment agreement with Mercosur (Southern Common Market) member states Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay in January or February.
However, another growing, market-rich region of the world will also be a key focus for the EU in 2024: the Asia-Pacific. These include the EU-Asia-Pacific Forum and the EU-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Ministerial Meeting.
Of course, the Asia-Pacific has long been an area of ​​interest for major European countries such as France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. Increasingly, however, a wide range of countries, including Italy, are also showing growing interest.
There are several reasons for this strong European emphasis on the Asia-Pacific. In 2021, the EU formally published its new strategy for the region, a major bureaucratic milestone. It aims to promote regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development in the face of increasing challenges and tensions, in an effort to uphold democracy, human rights, the rule of law and international law.
Second, there is a growing recognition in Europe that the Asia-Pacific will be one of the world's most dynamic regions. The region, if defined to include countries stretching from the east coast of Africa to the island nations of the Pacific Ocean, is home to three-fifths of the world's population. It accounts for about 60 percent of global GDP, two-thirds of world growth, 40 percent of the EU's total imports and, together with the EU, drives approximately 70 percent of world trade.
Third, there is an urgent need in Europe to diversify supply chains. This is not only in terms of reducing dependence on Russia, but China and the Asia-Pacific will be an important part of solving this puzzle.
Fourth, there is political recognition in Europe of the need to assume greater global responsibilities, including in what is sometimes considered a distant Asia-Pacific. The policy destiny of the region is increasingly intertwined with Europe, hence the need to try to influence its affairs.
For Europe, this new sense of urgency represents a step forward in efforts to find strategic clarity in the Asia-Pacific region. However, there are major divisions within the EU-27, let alone powers in the wider European region, which may significantly hinder the development and implementation of a clear, coherent approach.

There is growing recognition in Europe that the Asia-Pacific will continue to be one of the world's most dynamic regions.

Andrew Hammond

One of these strategic fault lines is intra-European differences about the rationale behind deeper engagement with the Asia-Pacific. For powers like Germany, this has long been based on commercial motives. However, there are others, including France, for whom a broader strategic calculus is more appropriate.
This critical divide within the EU was highlighted in a fascinating study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank that questioned policy-making elites in the EU's 27 member states on the issue. In nearly half of those states, decision-makers and influencers said the EU's policy in the Asia-Pacific region should be defined as a „field of opportunity to pursue economic interests”.
However, their counterparts in the other half of EU countries identified a broader European drive to engage the Asia-Pacific beyond „taking advantage of these new economic opportunities”. More specifically, they cited the importance of China's security focus.
While this divide is significant, it is possible that over time many parts of Europe will shift towards a more holistic, strategic lens to view its relationship with the Asia-Pacific, particularly if relations with China continue to deteriorate.
France, with its territories including New Caledonia and French Polynesia and the islands of Mayotte and Reunion near Madagascar, is the only EU country with a permanent military presence in the region.
However, other EU countries have shown an increased strategic interest there, including the promotion of free and open maritime supply routes as required under international law. For example, in 2021, a German warship sailed into the South China Sea for the first time since the turn of the millennium.
Last year, an Italian maritime patrol vessel was deployed to the region for almost half a year. It called on ports in 14 countries including Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea.
Within the wider Asia-Pacific geography, Europe's diplomacy has traditionally focused on the powers that are now part of the G20, including China, India, Japan and Australia.
However, the study on European foreign relations underlines how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations remains a much-loved partner for EU countries traveling in the region. In fact, the researchers found the group to be the most popular mechanism for European engagement, with endorsements from 21 of the 27 EU members. The reasons for this vary, with Europe's own post-war history favoring a multilateral, cooperative approach to foreign policy.
The EU is therefore at a critical juncture in its Asia-Pacific strategy. Big challenges remain, but a growing, market-rich mega-region could represent a huge opportunity for Europe to deliver on its goals by securing economic and political competitive advantages in the 2030s.

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Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE Ideas at the London School of Economics.

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News.

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