European powers are flexing their reach in the Indo-Pacific

STUTTGART, Germany — For decades France has served as the European Union’s main representative in the Indo-Pacific and as the only member to hold regional territories, conducting two to three deployments a year.

But over the past two years, the number of allies and partners expanding their ability to launch long-range, rapid deployments and sustain operational capability in the region has grown.

Both Germany and the Netherlands deployed military ships to the region for the first time in 2021 after leaving the EU its first Indo-Pacific strategy. The Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen deployed for seven months as part of a British carrier strike group led by the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth. The Dutch also took part in several exercises with Singapore, Japan and the US Navy during this period, as described in a March 2023 report by The Hague Center for Strategic Studies think tank.

Germany published its first Indo-Pacific strategy in 2020, with a focus on security and defence, and it has since been confirmed with various agencies visiting the region every year.

“Today the Indo-Pacific is the most strategically important region on Earth,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said in a recent statement. “This is where important decisions are made for freedom, peace and prosperity in the world. Germany is also directly affected by this.”

The German navy frigate Bayern spent six months sailing around the Horn of Africa, crossing the seas to Australia and Japan. Last year, the German Air Force sent six Eurofighters, along with tankers and transport aircraft, tasked to reach Singapore within 24 hours under the name “Pacific Readiness”. Members of the German Air Force also participated in Australia’s Exercise Pitch Black during the deployment.

This year, the German military will head to the Pacific as the service participates in Australia’s exercise Talisman Sabre, which will take place from July 22-Aug. 4. The combined exercise will also include German naval and air warfare platforms, a Defense Department spokesman told Defense News.

“The participation of the German exercise in Talisman Saber 2023 offers a very good opportunity to practice interoperability in a high-intensity battle with land, air and sea forces and to send a clear message of Germany’s solidarity and willingness to work with valued partners in the region . ,” the spokesman said in an email.

Next year, the German Navy is expected to send another frigate to the area, this time with a supply ship. In addition, the Air Force may participate in a tri-national air deployment between Germany, France and Spain, an Air Force spokesman told Defense News. As the three nations participating in the next-generation Future Combat Air System program, the deployment will serve as a joint message of solidarity with partners in the Indo-Pacific region, the spokesman added.

As of this writing, no plans for this joint development have been finalized, but the hope is that the three nations will sign a letter of intent at the Paris Air Show, which will be held June 19-25, according to the spokesman.

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Meanwhile, Italy began its five-month naval deployment from the La Spezia naval base in the Indo-Pacific region in early April, according to Naval News. The crew of the second Thaon di Revel-class offshore patrol vessel, Francesco Morosini, will call at 15 ports in 14 countries and is also involved in several regional operations. This deployment marks the first operational mission assigned to the ship and its crew and is the first time the vessel will operate outside the Mediterranean basin, serving as a test of its ability to carry out a long-range deployment.

The British Royal Navy will deploy an aircraft strike group in the Indo-Pacific in 2025. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made the announcement on the eve of the annual G7 summit in May, held this year in Hiroshima, Japan. The news came as Sunak and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, signed the Hiroshima Accord, which entails commitments to closer economic, defense, security and technological cooperation.

The deployment will be the second in the region for the British aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and the strike group will include naval escorts and F-35 fighter jets in cooperation with the Japan Self-Defense Forces and other regional partners.

EU ambitions

Alongside the initiatives of individual member states, the European Union has taken steps to strengthen its security posture in the Indo-Pacific region.

Security there was one of three main thematic areas at the second annual EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum, held on 13 May in Stockholm, Sweden. Around 60 ministers from both regions were present, sending a message that the EU “realises that we have a global theater where various regional challenges are interconnected and therefore we also need to have a global approach in working with partners in around the world,” a senior EU official said ahead of the forum.

While the official cited maritime awareness as a particular defense and security initiative, the person also described new means intended to counter “significant cyber threats” in the region, as well as “foreign intelligence manipulation.”

The EU has developed maritime awareness through two lines of effort, said Frederic Grare, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia program.

This includes the Indo-Pacific Critical Maritime Routes project series, launched in 2015 as a capacity-building exercise based on maritime sector awareness through the Indo Pacific Regional Information Sharing Platform. The flagship initiative was created for maritime coordination and communications, combined with extensive training programs on marine data processing in the region, across the EU.

The second is the creation of a coordinated maritime presence in the Indian Ocean through joint patrols, exercises and joint port calls, which Grare described as an “embryonic” effort that took place in February 2022 just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

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“We’re in the very, very early stages of implementation, and it’s going to take time before anything actually happens on the ground,” Grare said.

Observers and analysts say it is too early to judge the extent of the EU’s involvement in defense and security in the region. Indeed, the Hague Center’s report noted that since the EU does not operate the US Navy’s equivalent Japan-based 7th Fleet, “it seems clear that in the event of an open conflict, its role could be almost negligible.”

Many of the navies of EU members are structured more for littoral and littoral defense than for campaigning warfare, analysts said.

However, the report added, the bloc’s expertise in crisis management, international maritime law, maritime awareness and multilateral cooperation on piracy, crime, migration and illegal fishing helps address real regional needs.

“Capacity development in the above thematic areas constitutes the bulk of European efforts and the main contribution to regional maritime security. The naval presence can be the proverbial ‘cherry on top’, whose main purpose is to add visibility and credibility to its engagement,” the report said.

Another area of ​​challenge lies in the EU’s efforts to pursue something of a middle ground between the United States and China. But that has become increasingly difficult to navigate in the era of great power competition, said Ben Schreer, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Berlin office.

While G7 members expressed strong convergence to push back on many of Beijing’s approaches to the war in Ukraine, tension with Taiwan and economic coercion after their annual meeting in May, the repeated emphasis on “disengagement, not disengagement ». it reflected the EU’s approach to China, as well as that of major member states such as France and Germany.

These mediator approaches run the risk of undermining more constructive efforts at the military level, Schreer noted. France, for example, has been active in organizing joint deployments through the Indo-Pacific with the US and Australia, and has sailed its own warships through the Taiwan Strait.

However, French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments in April about the need to avoid a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan has given some stakeholders a pause in the Indo-Pacific, Schreer said. Macron’s comments also led to a debate over whether European nations will continue to prioritize their domestic interests in the Indo-Pacific, rather than a cooperative approach from across the bloc, Schreer added.

Regional interlocutors participating in the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, held in Singapore from June 2 to 4, do not necessarily expect the EU to become a “big player in terms of defence”, he explained. However, they will consider speeches by defense ministers, as well as EU defense and security czar Josep Borrell, about “practical, concrete statements on strengthening the defense posture”.

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany and contributes to Defense News’ European coverage. He has previously been featured in National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the best young defense journalist at the Defense Media Awards 2020.

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