EU Steps Up Engagement with Indo-Pacific States, Touts Rule of Law

Shailaja Neelakantan and Ronna Nirmala
2022.02.23
Washington and Jakarta
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EU Steps Up Engagement with Indo-Pacific States, Touts Rule of Law A Philippine Navy band performs as it welcomes the French Navy ship Vendemiaire (F734), a Floreal-classlight surveillance frigate, upon its arrival for a five-day goodwill visit at a port in Metro Manila, March 12, 2018.
[Reuters]

The European Union has stepped up its strategic engagement with the Indo-Pacific by convening an inaugural meeting with the region’s top diplomats and then affirming the bloc’s commitment to freedom of navigation and international law – an apparent rebuke of China.

At the Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which took place in Paris on Tuesday, the EU announced the extension of the concept of a coordinated maritime presence in the north-west Indian Ocean, to support regional stability and security. That would ensure a permanent and visible European naval presence and outreach.

“This will allow the EU to further support stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region, to optimize naval deployments, to promote coherence of European action and to facilitate the exchange of information and cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific, including by conducting joint maritime exercises and port calls,” according to a statement issued at the end of the meeting.

Top diplomats from 30 Indo-Pacific counties and 27 foreign ministers from EU member-states took part in the meeting hosted by France, this year’s president of the Council of the European Union. The United States and China were not at the forum in the French capital.

The forum “highlighted the shared ambition among participants to: reaffirm their commitment to a rules-based international order, democratic values and principles, as well as to the strengthening of multilateralism and the rule of law, respect for international law, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),” the statement said.

Participants also agreed to work towards peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, which has become a pre-eminent geopolitical theater as Washington responds to an increasingly assertive Beijing in the disputed South China Sea. China has never accepted a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that Beijing’s expansive “historical claims” in the waterway have no legal basis.

The Indo-Pacific meanwhile has become strategically important for the EU, which is the top investor in the region, according to the European Commission (EC).

Together, the Indo-Pacific and Europe command more than 70 percent of the global trade in goods and services, as well as more than 60 percent of foreign-direct investment flows, the EC said on its website.

However, the commission warned, the growing geopolitical rivalry could threaten this increasingly robust trade and investment relationship.

“[C]urrent dynamics in the Indo-Pacific have given rise to intense geopolitical competition adding to increasing tensions on trade and supply chains as well as in technological, political and security areas” the commission said.

“This is the reason why the EU has decided to step up its strategic engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.”

The statement issued after Tuesday’s meeting highlighted this point.

“The EU participants reiterated the importance of the Indo-Pacific region for Europe and underlined their support for an increased and long-term engagement of the EU and its member-states through concrete actions,” the statement said.

“The role of the outermost regions and European overseas countries and territories in the Indo-Pacific was highlighted in this respect,” the statement said, referring to France which has territories in the region.

The Indo-Pacific is home to nearly 2 million French citizens and 9 million square kilometers (3.47 million square miles) of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

ID-Pic1.jpeg

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (left) and Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (right), welcome Indonesian Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi during the Indo-Pacific Ministerial Cooperation Forum, in Paris, Feb. 22, 2022.  [AFP]

Stability in the region has been threatened lately through alleged incursions by Chinese research ships, maritime militia and aircraft in the EEZs or of Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, respectively.

Six Asian governments have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea that overlap with the sweeping claims of China.

They are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia's exclusive economic zone.

Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s minister of foreign affairs who attended the meeting, said she reiterated that international law “must be respected.”

“Peace, stability and respect for international law must be at the center of regional cooperation and all discussions,” she told a virtual news conference from Paris on Wednesday.

“Indonesia emphasized the importance of cooperation and collaboration amidst deepening rivalry that could lead to open conflict,” she said, adding, “Indonesia sees the Indo-Pacific as a vast sea of opportunity too large to be dominated by any one country. Therefore, mutual security, mutual stability, and common prosperity must be a public good.”

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