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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Serena Kelly

EU in the Indo-Pacific Cooperation: Opportunities and Constraints

The European Union has signalled a shift in its foreign policy strategy, indicating its desire to increase its involvement in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, the varied responses to their statement show how much work the EU still has to do to convince other parties that it is a viable partner.

Photo credits: AFP/Eloisa Lopez

During her visit to the Philippines in July 2023, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen commented on the increasingly volatile global geopolitical landscape and the threats posed by authoritarian leaders. Remarking on the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal's ruling on the South China Sea, she offered EU support to the Philippines to enhance maritime security through cooperation and capacity-building efforts. Von der Leyen finished by noting the indivisibility of security in Europe and the Indo-Pacific: “Security in Europe and security in the Indo-Pacific is indivisible. Challenges to the rules-based order in our interconnected world affect all of us.”


Several news outlets found the comments intriguing. The Morning Star interpreted the Press Release as conveying, “Europe would not tolerate aggression in the Indo-Pacific”. A Global Times article quoted a source saying that von der Leyen was "forging the EU into a military organization subordinate to the US”. While the Press Release does not go into detail about the type of support the EU would offer the Philippines, the European Union’s 2021 Indo-Pacific Strategy offers some insights into the current motivations of the EU’s involvement and goals in the Indo-Pacific as well as its potential capacity to respond to challenges to the rules-based international order.


Released in the wake of earlier strategies by EU Member States – France, Germany, and Netherlands – the Strategy demonstrated the EU’s recognition of the growing geo-strategic and economic importance of the Indo-Pacific. EU trade with the Indo-Pacific was worth €1.5 trillion in 2019, and four of the EU’s ten largest trade partners are located in the EU’s definition of the Indo-Pacific. Hence, a key factor in the EU’s goal of extending cooperation and strengthening relationships, is tied to the EU’s trade agenda and goals, including concluding trade agreements with Australia, Indonesia, and New Zealand. Not only is trade at the forefront of the EU’s interactions with the region, but there are also environmental concerns. As noted in the document: “global carbon dioxide emissions has grown from 37% to 57% since 2000 and the Indo-Pacific will account for more than 70% of growth in global energy demand by 2030.”


As indicated in the title of the Strategy, cooperation with third countries is an indivisible part of the EU’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific. The EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific lists seven priority areas for cooperation: Sustainable and inclusive prosperity; Green transition; Ocean governance; Digital governance and partnerships; Connectivity; Security and defence; and Human security. The EU’s engagement with third countries would be “principled and long-term” and based on shared values and principles. Special note was made towards countries with their own respective Indo-Pacific strategies and “likeminded Indo-Pacific partners.” Indeed, von der Leyen’s Press Release in the Philippines noted, “We share so many values and interests. We both want to work towards strengthening our democracies. We believe in the rules-based international order…So it makes sense to strengthen our ties across the board.”


Although von der Leyen’s Philippines press release did not explicitly name China as a threat, the intense negative reaction of The Global Times, a newspaper that “presents a nationalistic narrative about China and the world” is telling. Regarding China, on one hand the Strategy emphasises the importance of the EU engaging bilaterally with China as a key factor for ensuring a peaceful and thriving Indo-Pacific. On the other, it makes note of China’s “significant military build-up.” It was von der Leyen’s firm stance surrounding security in the Indo-Pacific which garnered strong interest from observers.


Once called an “economic giant (but) political pygmy,” EU foreign policy has long struggled for recognition. The real capability and impact of EU foreign policy has also been questioned on many occasions. This is partly because EU Member State foreign policy continues to take precedence in areas considered to be of key national sovereignty. The Strategy cites the goal of ensuring the Indian Ocean is kept free and open, and promises to enhance the EU’s naval presence in the region, raising the question: does the EU have a navy? This promise means that the EU would rely on Member State naval deployments. The EU Naval Force (NAVFOR) has operated since 2008 with an anti-piracy mandate based primarily in the Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa. The EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy promised to extend its mandate to the Indo-Pacific, to “assess the opportunity of establishing Maritime Areas of Interest in the Indo-Pacific”.


The EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy clearly outlines the EU’s economic, political, and environmental goals and interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Yet the varied responses to von der Leyen’s July comments demonstrates a mixed reaction by third countries to further EU engagement. The EU has named New Zealand as a like-minded partner, and the EU’s ratification of the EU-NZ Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was one of the immediate goals of the Strategy. As a small state, New Zealand is heavily reliant on the rules based international system which the EU seeks to support. For New Zealand, von der Leyen’s emphasis on the indivisibility of security between Europe and the Indo-Pacific is most likely welcomed, albeit with some caution over the real-time capabilities of the EU. New Zealand has also previously participated in EU anti-piracy missions – hence there may be opportunities for further naval cooperation.


While the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy provides a collective European framework, its implementation will rely on Member States’ whose own individual strategies may offer additional nuances based on their individual interests and historical ties with the region. Ultimately, the EU seeks to engage constructively in the Indo-Pacific, recognising its interconnectedness with global security and prosperity.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Serena Kelly is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. Her current research examines the profile and presence of the European Union in New Zealand, with a focus on EU-NZ relations and policies.



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