The EU’s (Next) Asia Strategy

The ascension of Josep Borrell to the position of European Union (EU) High Representative (HR/VP) on 1 December 2019 places an EU strategy for Asia that reaches  beyond ‘connectivity’ at the center of the political agenda towards the region. This article does not seek to comment on whether this strategy should be carried out. Rather, it assumes that the inherent limitations of the EU’s first coordinated attempt to formulate an EU connectivity strategy for Asia – officially entitled a Joint Communication on ‘Connecting Europe and Asia – building blocks for an EU strategy’ – are sufficiently pronounced to warrant consideration of the question: What should the next strategy be called? 

The terminology utilized by political institutions to describe the geopolitical space in which subsequent operations will follow has always been significant in itself. As a long-serving diplomat, HR/VP Borrell is already well aware of the potential consequences of utilizing the ‘wrong’ appellation. The stakes are particularly elevated in the context of the EU-Asia relationship. This article will elucidate the various appellations presently available to HR/VP Borrell to describe the geopolitical space in which the next EU strategy will aim to operate. 

A frequently utilized term is the ‘East-Asia’ region. This term is typically utilized to describe the geographic space that includes Northeast and Southeast Asia, and does not seek to describe a geopolitical space, as was done in the ‘Guidelines on the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia’ in 2012. The use of the ‘East Asia’ appellation, however, has grown too restrictive for the EU’s Asia strategy amid an increasingly multipolar world. By using this term and therefore restricting his focus to a delimited geographical space, HR/VP Borrell would seriously jeopardize any long-term viability for the EU’s Asia strategy, as the term omits political actors that are forwarding their own counter-initiatives, including Russia’s 2016 ‘Greater Eurasia’ concept and India’s 2017 ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’.

Equally, adopting Russia’s ‘Greater Eurasia’ appellation would be a serious mistake. Its use implies a persistent romanticization of superpower status that, due to Europe’s past, would equate it with an imperial legacy. Secondly, while the ‘East Asia’ appellation is too geographically restrictive, ‘Greater Eurasia’ is too geographically inclusive. Thirdly, if the ensuing EU strategy contains any security dimensions, it may create negative crossover effects with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), whose primary purpose has evolved from countering Russian expansion into Europe to curtailing Russian expansion worldwide. Finally, the appellation’s adoption would be a critical body blow to the EU’s already tenuous ‘strategic autonomy,’ as it would hold the EU captive inside an ‘imagined order’ not designed by its own makings.

Britain’s ‘All-of-Asia’ policy (sometimes called a ‘project’) fails for largely the same reasons as Russia’s ‘Greater Eurasia’ appellation. In a speech given at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2016, then-Director for Asia-Pacific in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), Stephen Lillie, justified the ‘All-of-Asia’ policy on the grounds that the United Kingdom held ‘historic political and people-to-people links’ across the whole of its former and contemporary Commonwealth. This romanticization of its historical global dominion subconsciously invokes an imperial past that seeks external projects beyond those allowed by its internal capacities. This is evidenced by the efforts of former Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Fields, to be active and present across the entirety of the region. This likely also underlies the recommendations of both famed maritime strategist Geoffrey Till and political analyst Lie Ji Sheng that the British government narrow down its political efforts by adopting the ‘Indo-Pacific’ appellation as part of the already established ‘All-of-Asia’ policy.

‘Asia-Pacific’ was, until recently, the most commonplace terminology utilized to describe the geopolitical space in which the EU is developing its second strategy. Similarly to other terms used to describe the region, its origins lie with the Japanese government’s attempt to describe its re-engagement with the Asian community during the 1960’s. Over the following years, as Japan’s internal security nodes acted more or less strictly under the umbrella of the United States, the terminologies’ focus moved towards the US and its  East Asian allies. While some officials seek to model the EU strategy on Japan’s earlier re-engagement with the region, this term’s use is clearly too historically loaded to be appropriated by the EU.

The most frequently used term in the present day is the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. The use of the expression spread rapidly throughout the region, beginning in Japan and reaching India in the 2010’s. It was officially adopted by Australia in 2013 and, more recently, by France in 2019. Sciences Po scholar Pierre Grosser suggests that the term’s use arose before its official adoption through four ‘prise de consciences’ starting in the early 2000’s: the Tsunami of 2004, Asiatic dependence on Middleastern oil, China’s pivot towards the Indian Ocean and India’s reorientation towards the ‘Asia-Pacific’ region, and the rise of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘Quad’), which is hostile to Chinese aims. The Chief Executive Officer of the Perth US-Asia Centre, Gordon Flake, wrote that the term ‘captures the rise of India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and ASEAN, and resonates with Australia’s outlook as a two-ocean nation.’ Eva Pejsova of the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) proposes that the ‘Indo-Pacific’ region, acting as a ‘new geo-political construct, shifts the regional center of gravity westwards, reflecting the emergence of new actors and trends shaping the region’s strategic environment.’ In line with Grosser, Pejsova added that the rise of China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (MSR), India’s use of the ‘String of Pearls’ concept, and reemergence of the Quad, all ‘[underscore] the centrality of maritime trade, freedom of navigation, and the importance of a rules-based, liberal order as a prerequisite to global development, prosperity, and stability.’

However, two problems arise in the use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ for the EU’s Asia strategy. Firstly, as Pejsova suggests, as a consequence of ‘the insistence on the status quo championed by the Quadrilateral coalition, a number of every-day, non-traditional security issues, from climate change to cyber security or disaster response, are being overlooked.’ One of the most important non-traditional security issues the term eclipses by invoking the Quad is the notion of ‘good ocean governance.’ While the strategy’s security section will almost certainly focus primarily on the ‘softer elements of security,’ the section’s association with the Quad therefore renders it contradictory from the outset. Secondly, China maintains a negative view of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ appellation, viewing it as a slogan destined to solely capture attention and predicting that it will ‘dissolve like foam in the ocean.’ As the EU places a premium on its strategic autonomy and sees China as a primary partner, use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ works against the independence that the EU seeks to promote. It therefore follows that the EU should, for the foreseeable future, avoid using this term at an official diplomatic level. 

The appellation ultimately included in the strategy’s title will be largely dependent on its content. If the EU wishes, for example, to prioritize maritime security issues (i.e. pushing back against China’s attempt to divide Europe through the acquisition of ports), then the ‘Indo-Pacific’  appellation would be a likely candidate. In either case, the adoption or non-adoption of ‘Indo-Pacific’ is not achieved without heavy political consequences. For, although the adoption of the ‘Asia-Pacific’ or ‘Indo-Pacific’ terminology plays well with those states that seek to ‘stand-up’ to China, it would also unnerve EU political and economic partners in the region (e.g. China, ASEAN, etc.), and vice versa. With no unproblematic options at his disposal, HR/VP Borrell should either formulate an entirely new term or retain the generic ‘Asia’ terminology in keeping with previous years. While the former may be more favorable on grounds of strategic autonomy, the latter enjoys the support of political precedent. 

With the priorities of the EU still more or less unclear at this present time, what is nevertheless certain is that HR/VP Borrell will have to remain immensely cognizant of the political minefield he is walking through. 


Hadrien T. Saperstein

Hadrien Saperstein is an MA War Studies student at King’s College London.


The featured image (top) shows the Hearing of Josep Borrell, High Representative / Vice President-designate. CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP



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