The European Union released its own Indo-Pacific strategy policy paper earlier this month, an unprecedented declaration that promises to put the EU at loggerheads with China.
The Council today adopted conclusions on an 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.The 10-page document comes as China continues to threaten the security of the area by claiming sovereignty in most parts of the region.
Richard Javad Heydarian writes for Asia Times that the timing and the language of the policy paper show that rising concerns over China's geopolitical assertiveness are at the heart of the EU's new strategic recalibration.
The Council's conclusions were released weeks after the EU imposed collective sanctions against China over its mass persecution of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region.
EU has traditionally viewed China and the Asian region through the prism of trade and investment, which is noticeable by a number of European countries exporting key dual-use technology, allowing China and others to develop advanced Type-039 Song-class submarines.
The economy-driven strategy also culminated in the EU-China investment agreement signed last year. However, recent years have seen a major overhaul in bilateral relations between China and Germany amid growing disagreements on a wide range of issues, including human rights, democracy to trade and maritime security.
In 2019, the EU openly described China as a 'systemic rival'. It also slammed certain member states, including Italy, for supporting China's controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has been criticized for its alleged "debt trap" diplomacy and lack of compliance with prevailing good governance standards in infrastructure development, writes Asia Times."There is a growing appreciation in Europe that the balance of challenges and opportunities presented by China has shifted. In the last decade, China's economic power and political influence have grown with unprecedented scale and speed, reflecting its ambitions to become a leading global power," the EU communication said.
Much to the chagrin of Beijing, the EU signed a major defense deal, also known as the Framework Participation Agreement, with one of China's main maritime rivals in the South China Sea, Vietnam in 2019.
The EU's Indo-Pacific Strategy paper this month, however, makes it clear that Europe is determined to deepen its influence in the region. China's rising assertiveness abroad and growing repression at home is a major driving force behind Europe's motive in the Indo-Pacific.
Highlighting growing disagreements with China on key issues, Thomas Gnocchi, head of the EU Office to China's special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, said: "[I]t's fairly clear that on human rights, we don't have a common vision on how to see this issue."
The EU recently condemned China's actions against the Philippines during the month-long Whitsun Reef standoff, where an armada of Chinese militia vessels surrounded Philippine-occupied land features in the Spratly island chain, reported Asia Times.
"Tensions in the South China Sea, including the recent presence of large Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef, endanger peace and stability in the region," the bloc said.
Meanwhile, major European powers, including Germany, France and the Netherlands, have released their own respective "Indo-Pacific" strategy papers. France has conducted regular naval patrols in the Indo-Pacific due to Beijing's perceived maritime expansionism.
For the first time in two decades, Germany is also set to deploy a warship across the Indo-Pacific in the coming months. Berlin also agreed to deploy a German frigate to East Asia and the Western Pacific by August.
The United Kingdom is expected to follow in the same footsteps by deploying its largest-ever naval fleet in recent memory, led by its newly-minted 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, as early as May.
The bloc's adoption of conclusions come as US President Joe Biden and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week reiterated their calls for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The meeting between Biden and Suga is their first face-to-face meeting since the US President took office in January.
The dragon claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has overlapping territorial claims with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
China has been increasing its maritime activities in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea over the past few months, partly in response to Beijing's concerns over the increasing US military presence in the region because of escalating Sino-US tensions.