Indo-Pacific calling: Where is the US heading and what does it mean for Europe?

Opinion piece (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung)
24 January 2024

The geopolitical centre of gravity is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific. What are the implications for the transatlantic relationship?

‘Indo-Pacific’ has become a buzzword. Whether on the economic, technological, or security issues – analysts never tire of stressing the region’s importance. In recent years, many countries and organisations have adopted new Indo-Pacific strategies and policy guidelines, including among others the EU and Germany. The consensus is that the geopolitical centre of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. But what does that mean in practice?

In recent history, the label ‘Indo-Pacific’ was first popularized by Japanese Prime Minister Abe in a speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007. Australia was the first to embrace the term in official documents, followed by India and Japan. The US officially adopted the concept in its documents in 2017. Since then, a wide range of governments and organisations have started using the term.

The concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’, with its focus on the oceans and waterways, is often used in the context of geopolitics and economics. The term also frames the region in a broader way that includes India and the Indian Ocean. For this reason, the concept of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is also used as a way to talk about and confront rising Chinese assertiveness in the region. But just as geographic definitions of the scope of the region differ, so does the understanding of its role and the challenges it presents.

The US pivots to Asia…

Under the Obama administration, the US famously declared its Pivot to Asia – a new American focus towards the East. This new emphasis marked somewhat of a break with the past. In the 20th century, after the US fought in two world wars in Europe. Afterwards, the Cold War ensured the continent’s position at the centre of American attention.

With the new pivot, American foreign policy aspired to focus its efforts increasingly on rising Asia and the role of China. The Obama administration saw the region through a lens of economic opportunity and sought to find areas of co-operation with China through the regular high-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue, but it also had concerns about the implications of China’s rise and future role in the international system. The Trump administration put the US-China relationship in unambiguously competitive terms, declaring competition with China as the US’ defining foreign policy challenge. Unlike some of Trump's more controversial policy choices, this stance on China reflected what had by then become a bipartisan consensus.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the substance of the Biden administration’s policy towards the Indo-Pacific has been marked by continuity with its predecessor. By and large, American foreign policy is focused on countering an increasingly assertive China. As part of this, the US is stepping up both military and diplomatic contributions to the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration has strengthened the close web of existing alliances and partnerships in the region. It also invested in creating new partnerships such as AUKUS. Additionally, Biden has repeatedly stated that US forces would come to Taiwan’s aid, should China choose to attack the island – removing some of the ambiguity that other presidents preserved.

…but what about Europe?

The US has not stopped caring about Europe. But while American resources are vast, they are not unlimited. As the US focuses its efforts on China and the Indo-Pacific, there are fewer resources available to invest in European security.

This has also become apparent in the US debate on Ukraine. The Biden administration has been the biggest supporter of Ukraine in both humanitarian, financial and military aid. However, in the American debate regarding Ukraine assistance, some argue that the US should focus on China over Ukraine, and let the Europeans take care of their security themselves.

The EU’s Indo-Pacific agenda

The US, particularly through NATO, is central to European security. The American focus on the Indo-Pacific consequently has strong implications for Europeans. But this is not the only way in which Europe and the Indo-Pacific are connected. The two regions are linked through substantive economic ties. A large chunk of Europe’s trade passes through the waterways of the Indo-Pacific. For some European countries the connection runs even deeper. Both France and the UK are ‘residents’ of the region – their overseas territories in Indo-Pacific are home to French and British citizens. In the past, the two have conducted joint naval operations in contested waters such as the South China Sea.

European engagement with the countries of the region is not new - what is new is adopting the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’. Granted, there is little unity among EU member states on what this concept actually implies or even what the geographic scope of the Indo-Pacific entails. Some EU member-states only have a very limited interest in the concept. Others view it primarily through the lens of their relations with China or the US – seeing the concept as a way either to further positive relations with China or to align with the US.

Nevertheless, the EU managed to adopt an Indo-Pacific strategy in 2021. Given the different ways in which member-states approach the region, it is not surprising that the document is somewhat of a catch-all agenda for cooperation. It does however signal that several EU member-states take the concept of Indo-Pacific seriously and have started pushing co-operation with the region forward at the EU level. This is also indicated by the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum, which was launched in 2022.

A transatlantic approach?

There also has been increasing engagement between Americans and Europeans on the Indo-Pacific region. EU and US officials have engaged in high-level consultations specifically on the topic since 2021. The EU has also invited the US (alongside Canada and the UK) to its Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum. In 2023, the first-ever joint naval exercise between the EU and the US was held in the Indo-Pacific.

Potentially the most important vehicle for transatlantic cooperation regarding the Indo-Pacific however is NATO. In 2019, NATO firstly mentioned China as presenting opportunities and challenges to address. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have tried to expand transatlantic co-operation on China, which also shows in NATO’s growing Indo-Pacific agenda.

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept states that “developments in that [Indo-Pacific] region can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security” and stresses the intent to “strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific”. In the last few years, the Alliance has stepped up cooperation with its partners in the region - Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, notably all US treaty allies. While NATO’s bilateral ties to all of the four go back further, it is only in more recent years that they have been treated as a grouping, underscoring the importance of the Indo-Pacific to the Alliance. The four have been engaged in frequent dialogues as well as being invited to the NATO Summits since 2022.

Unsurprisingly, agreeing on a transatlantic Indo-Pacific agenda is not all smooth sailing. Europeans alone already bring very different positions and perspectives to the table when it comes to China and the Indo-Pacific. It is even more challenging to find a common transatlantic line. Some Europeans are wary of being dragged into a conflict between China and the US or worry about over-reach of the Alliance. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron said that Europeans should not get ‘caught up in crises that are not ours’ and must not become ‘just America’s followers’. France had also been critical of a NATO proposal to open a Liaison office in Tokyo, an idea that was subsequently shelved.

While there is quite some overlap, European and American interests in the Indo-Pacific region are not identical. Both have strong economic interests in the region per se as well as a fundamental interest in the functioning of the global economy, to which the Indo-Pacific with its waterways is crucial. They also share an interest in upholding the rules and norms of the current international system, which are increasingly challenged in the region. But for the US, the Indo-Pacific is a region of strategic significance in which it wants to preserve its influence. Europe’s non-economic interests in the region are more indirect and boil down to a desire ‘to be left alone’, and to not be affected negatively by any developments in the region. Europeans therefore primarily look at the Indo-Pacific through the lens of economic opportunity, while the US views it through the prism of strategic competition with China.

Irrespective of who wins the 2024 presidential election, the US will continue its focus on the Indo-Pacific region. To what extent this will also imply a focus away from European security depends on who heads the next administration. But even if the Democrats win the White House again, the long-term trajectory is clear. Europeans need to get ready to take on more responsibility for their security at home.

But Europeans also should start thinking about if they want to play more of a role in the Indo-Pacific, and if so, what kind of role this should be. Questions concerning US resources are not the only thing that links European interests and the Indo-Pacific. Upholding peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific is fundamental to not just European economic interests, but also to the preservation of the international system. Developments in the Indo-Pacific could have enormous consequences for Europe. The EU should do its part to shape these developments.