In the last ten-year, European Union(EU) watched China and ASEAN rise and the gradual geostrategic and economic importance of Asia Pacific. As recently as 2019 there was no clear policy or focus on the region in European Union what is now being termed Indo-Pacific. To clarify, Asia- Pacific maybe geographical region, Indo- Pacific covers importance of India and Indian Ocean, ASEAN, major sea covering international trade, oil shipping and lines of communication linking Europe with East Asia. Multilateralism is both an objective and a mean for EU stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific. The Multilateralism of EU actors won’t favour a specific balance of power structure in Indo- Pacific but prefer where no country imposes hegemony by developing alternatives for middle power countries in the region to preserve their freedom of choice and sovereignty.

France was first to publish Indo- Pacific strategies in two papers, “France Defence strategy in the Indo-Pacific” and “French Strategy in the Indo Pacific: For an inclusive Indo-Pacific Space”, in 2018 and then in 2019. Germany issued Policy Guidelines that provide entry points for closer cooperation with regional partners in the Indo-Pacific region taking into considerations, military. traditional security elements, power consideration taking into account the security as well as technical, security policy, economic and social risks. Netherland’s guidelines for strengthening Dutch and EU cooperation with partners in Asia went beyond trade and investment in September and November 2020. Today these three countries have been working together to promote an Indo-Pacific concept or vision for EU adoption. In April 2021 it was adopted and the council released its strategy for cooperation in Indo-Pacific and defined the geographic area from east coast of Africa to Pacific Island states. Their comprehensive vision is aimed at defending multilateralism through political, economic and security cooperation.

Although individually these three countries have different interests in the region but present a similar strategic thinking on emphasising multipolarity and diversification through economic and not yet operational security partnership with the aim of preserving their strategic autonomy and of the countries in Asia Pacific region. This is in line with geoeconomics and geopolitical shift from Atlantic to Pacific and Indian Ocean. The expectation is that Asia Pacific would become the main driver of global growth considering its central role in globalisation of its population, urbanisation and economic growth. The region has proven despite significant changes in the balance of power to remain stable post-cold war era and free from large-scale war in spite of territorial disputes. The focus remains regional economic cooperation and even with boults of economic recessions like the Asian currency crisis proven resilient. This is in contrast to the over militarised US approach in which Asia Pacific and EU perceive it as a benign hegemon, a provider of security and global common good guardian of democracy and economic cooperation.

The three countries recognising the challenges posed by China’s increasing influence and assertiveness in the Asia Pacific region and global economy in the coming decade have formed guidelines that will become a blueprint of an autonomous European approach to preserve inclusive rule based multilateral Indo-Pacific Order. The French and Dutch strategies focus on multipolarity by setting up a network of economic and security partnership in the region with common values; democratic, market economies committed to multilateralism sharing community of values and interests. Among the favoured countries are ASEAN. Japan, South Korea and India in sharing new technologies like 5G, Artificial Intelligence, development of standards and international framework conditions for industries 4.0. India now that is not part of RCEP would be more inclined to sign FTA with more European countries an could import and export technology attract investments and opportunities for closer cooperation.

India is coming increasingly under pressure to participate in trade regime if it wants to be a power in multipolar order. However, its regulatory environment remains relatively restrictive. European Union termed the Technical barriers to trade (TBT), sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) measures, deviation from international standards and agreements, as well as discrimination based on legislative or administrative measures as major drawbacks. A wide range of Indian sectors including goods, services, investment and public procurement remain restricted compared to other economies in the region.  However, on 8 May 2021, the EU and Indian Leaders’ agreed to resume negotiations for a “balanced, ambitious, comprehensive and mutually beneficial” trade agreement, and to launch separate negotiations on an investment protection agreement and another agreement on geographical indications. They agreed to link trade negotiations to finding “solutions to long-standing market access issues”. Additionally, Leaders agreed to set up a dialogue on WTO issues as well as joint working groups on regulatory cooperation and resilient supply chains. The EU-India High-Level Dialogue on Trade and Investment was tasked with supervising the implementation of these decisions.

India’s refusal to join the RCEP or CPTTP may challenge the whole Indo-Pacific concept as it is likely that the RCEP will deepen the gap between India and the ASEAN-Australasia-Northeast Asia region. Furthermore, with China’s announcement to speed up its process in joining CPTTP its influence in Indo-Pacific region will not be rivalled by any. China is already the largest trading partner of every RCEP signatory, except Laos (where China ranks second, after Thailand). This new agreement may increase this trend as, for example, the agreement says nothing about China’s state-owned enterprises. For Beijing, the RCEP might also complement the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) China’s connectivity project. Most ASEAN countries have already joined the BRI, and although Seoul and Tokyo are still not official members, some of their companies are involved in the Chinese programme. Members of the two agreements are likely to see more integration in the Asia-Pacific region without India. Although the Indo-Pacific region was mostly a defence concept, it was assumed that countries in the region shared economic interests. With India outside both the RCEP and the CPTTP, the Indo-Pacific region may hardly exist from an economic point of view; this may cause European countries to revise their strategy in the region.

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References:
Gudrun Wacker. Europe and the Indo-Pacific: comparing France, Germany and the Netherlands ARI 29/2021 – 9/3/2021
Dr. Sebastien Goulard ,’The RCEP and the European Union’s commercial strategy;, Asia Journal of Asia Pacific Studies (2021) Volume 6 No 3, 369-376

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of South Asia Strategic Research Center (GASAM)

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