Commentary in The Business Times on “EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy stands ready to deepen EU-Asean ties” together with Marc Abensour and Margriet Vonno, 15 October 2021


With its Indo-Pacific Strategy released on Sep 16, the European Union (EU) has sent a clear signal for a significant, long-term and cooperative engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

France, Germany and the Netherlands have actively contributed to formulating this strategy, building on our national strategies and guidelines that were published in 2018 and 2020.

With this strategy, we set a positive and inclusive agenda for cooperation with countries in the region that share our interests on a wide range of issues.

It is our firm belief that the challenges the world is facing today deserve a response based on cooperation and partnership, rather than hard security.

Over the last few years, the Indo-Pacific has experienced an increase in geopolitical competition and military build-up. These developments are of growing concern to many countries in the region.

In particular, Asean has articulated on many occasions the necessity of shaping a regional security architecture based on a rules-based international order, rather than the formation of blocs and military alliances.

Top investor

The EU is the top investor and leading provider of development cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Our annual trade reached 1.5 trillion euros in 2019 - S$2.35 trillion, based on today's exchange rate - before Covid-19 hit in early 2020.

The French overseas territories make our regions further intertwined. The EU has a vested interest in the stability and sustainable development of a region which has become the world's strategic and economic centre of gravity.

The EU has its own vision, interests and instruments to promote them. The bloc's inclusive approach forms the basis of our action. We aim to foster solutions to common challenges and play our part in enhancing peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, in dialogue with nations in the region.

At the same time, we will continue to protect our essential interests and promote our values.

In this spirit, we wish to cooperate further with Asean and its member countries. As trade and development partners, we not only recognise and support Asean centrality, we also keep on building relations benefiting both sides.

We are convinced that we share the same commitment to a multi-dimensional approach, combining trade, development cooperation, global challenges and security, in order to strengthen the rules-based order. Together, we can send a powerful signal and develop a common agenda in favour of effective multilateralism.

Priority areas

France, Germany and the Netherlands already contribute actively to the implementation of the EU Strategy in the priority areas it sets out - sustainable and inclusive prosperity, green transition, ocean governance, digital governance and partnerships, connectivity, security and defence, and human security.

In 2021, Singapore will have seen at dock or off its coasts two frigates, one helicopter carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine deployed by our nations - in addition to the 12 ships based in French overseas territories.

Under the EU Strategy, EU member states will enhance coordinated naval deployment to combat piracy, protect freedom of navigation and enforce United Nations sanctions.

Our multifaceted engagement in the region aims to tackle global challenges.

The EU was at the forefront of vaccine multilateralism through the Covax facility, and our countries have delivered millions of effective vaccines to countries of the Indo-Pacific in this framework.

Mitigation and adaptation to climate change are also important drivers of our action. The rise of the oceans, the increase in natural disasters and the loss of biodiversity affect our populations and economies.

By supporting initiatives such as the Asean Catalytic Green Finance Facility to generate investments in green infrastructure, we address these issues concretely.

The strategy of the EU for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific pertains to a larger effort to build Europe's strategic autonomy: the EU's capacity to formulate its own strategy, set its own priorities and act accordingly, while forging partnerships when and wherever possible.

In the past few years, important steps have been taken in this direction, such as the drafting of a Digital Services Act in 2020 to better protect consumers against illicit content and to promote transparency of online platforms, or the creation of the European Defence Fund in 2021 to further develop our defence industrial base.

While the EU endeavours to build its strategic autonomy, it will not be done at the expense of others. Rather, it makes it a more credible partner for countries and regions which are themselves seeking to preserve their freedom of action in an increasingly polarising world.

Strategic partners

The elevation of the relationship between Asean and the EU during the German EU Council Presidency in December 2020 to a Strategic Partnership was a milestone, as this step recognises both the depth of the relationship and heightens its ambition.

It paved the way for increased cooperation between the two regions attached to a rules-based multilateral order.

As France will take over the EU Council Presidency in the first semester of 2022, it will actively contribute to creating a momentum in favour of the swift implementation of the EU Strategy for the Indo-Pacific.

  • Marc Abensour is France's ambassador to Singapore and Margriet Vonno is the Netherlands' ambassador to Singapore.

This article was first published in The Business Times on 15 October 2021.

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