Transatlantic Take

Europe-India Cooperation on Indo-Pacific Security

February 16, 2021
Frederic Grare
6 min read

This article is a part of Agenda 2021, an edited series where experts provide ideas for strengthening U.S.-India and Europe-India cooperation in five different policy areas. It is part of GMF’s India Trilateral Forum, conducted in partnership with the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation.

The German government’s publication of its “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region” last September, in which it announced that it would work with the French government to elaborate a European strategy on relations with the Indo-Pacific has opened-up a new debate within the European Union. After months of hesitation, Brussels is finally considering the possibility of adopting an Indo-Pacific strategy of its own, following a joint initiative by France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Yet, the three countries quite naturally disagree on the nature and scope of a potential European commitment to the security of the region. If they converge on the broad security objectives that an EU Indo-Pacific strategy should promote, they differ on the political and military means they are capable and willing to commit to the region. Also, and perhaps more importantly, they differ on the role member states should play. Because of its populations and territories in the Indo-Pacific, France’s strategy includes a military dimension that is largely absent from the documents issued by Germany and the Netherlands. The other two countries insist essentially on the normative dimension of security and see their contribution much more through the prism of reinforcing existing security institutions.

China is the central issue for Europe. If the EU now considers it as a “systemic rival and competitor,” there is still no consensus among the member states on the ways and means to address its rise. The coronavirus pandemic, among other issues, has significantly deteriorated China’s image in Europe, but individual vulnerabilities and the degree of political risk each country is willing to take in its relationship with Beijing still inhibit the definition of a common position on China. These differences are likely to inform the larger European debate on the Indo-Pacific. But they may not prevent the adoption of an EU strategy that will inevitably be based on a larger set of economic, political, and environmental considerations. The adoption of an EU Indo-Pacific strategy is likely to happen this year, even if there is a real risk that this timeline is at the expense of diluting the strategic concept.

Individual vulnerabilities and the degree of political risk each country is willing to take in its relationship with Beijing still inhibit the definition of a common position on China. These differences are likely to inform the larger European debate on the Indo-Pacific.

In this context, security cooperation with India will be a significant priority, as can be inferred from the importance of the country in the existing European national strategies. The challenge is less to identify new themes of cooperation between the two sides than to give them substance. Cyber and maritime security, regularly identified as topics for dialogue, should be given priority. Maritime security is a generic term that covers activities as diverse as naval cooperation, maritime domain awareness, coast guard or customs training, radars and spatial cooperation, intelligence sharing, and the larger field of capacity building in third countries in which India and some EU member states are active and coordinate bilaterally.

The aim should be to create an EU-India framework that ensures optimal efficiency and avoids duplication. Joint EU-India choices of thematic priorities, not just technical ones, would also matter. Issues chosen for cooperation should differ not only by the technical means through which they can be addressed but also by their potential for political mobilization. Counter-piracy and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing are usually listed in the same category of activities because they both require maritime domain awareness and coast guards. But they differ radically in terms of their potential for political mobilization, domestically and internationally. They both contribute to the sovereign control of exclusive economic zones while offering the additional possibility to mobilize an entirely different set of political, normative, and economic coercive options.

In this perspective it could be argued that India and the EU should jointly define the terms and framework of their security cooperation in advance of the adoption of an EU strategy in order to allow for an effective quid pro quo between two quite parallel visions on the Indo-Pacific and manage their expectations as well as their actual cooperation. India knows that the value of the EU as a security actor in the Indo-Pacific should not be assessed solely through its hard-security assets and that the EU is reluctant to adopt an overtly confrontational posture vis-à-vis China, both considerations that have also informed is own vision of, and policies in, the Indo-Pacific. It also knows that defense and security have never been operations of all EU member states at once. India moreover understands that the nature of the EU makes it more comfortable with a “comprehensive security” role that India has also defined for itself. Therefore, India needs the EU to define Indo-Pacific security cooperation that will allow cooperation or coordination at the union level when possible, or bilaterally with member states, but in an integrated and coordinated manner.

India and the EU should jointly define the terms and framework of their security cooperation in advance of the adoption of an EU strategy.

Europe has a set of sub-strategic-level options which it can use in the region. Its capacities developed to counterpiracy and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing are no more than law-enforcement mechanisms but they contribute to a more effective control of a country’s exclusive economic zone. They restrain the space for maneuver of external powers and contribute to regional stability. Moreover, they fall strictly within the limits of international law. Therefore, they are likely to help constrain China and to change its behavior to follow international norms while facilitating the emergence of a new perception of Europe as a security actor in the region. This could in turn facilitate relations with India whose security approach to the Indo-Pacific is framed in comparable terms. This would require that the EU elaborate a real strategy and does not satisfy itself with the enumeration of innocuous objectives.

In this context, the various existing formats (expanded G-7 or Quad Plus, democracy summits) or planned ones follow a similar dynamic. The commonality of values around which they are built constitute a useful reminder of the ties that exist between the protagonists of the Indo-Pacific debate even if each of them has defined the region on their own terms. There is every reason to prefer the most inclusive grouping of democracies, including the EU. But they can play a meaningful role only if their democratic agendas integrate meaningful concrete steps. In that sense technology alliances offer a greater potential for mobilization and impact than strictly ideological ones. No country, though, is willing to trade security (irrespective of its nature) for symbols.

Frédéric Grare is nonresident senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia program. He has been advisor responsible for the Indian Ocean at the Center for Analysis, Planning and Strategy, at France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He also served at the Asia bureau, the Directorate for Strategic Affairs in France’s Ministry of Defense from 2008 to 2012.

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