Europe and Asia: In the Same Boat?
Although the security politics of Europe and Asia have always been deeply interconnected, conventional wisdom has seen the two regions as separate strategic theaters. The rise of Asia and the conflicts within it and between it and the West have begun to reproduce a complex security interdependence between Europe and Asia.
In a recent report to the United States Congress on national security strategy, President Joe Biden identified the Indo-Pacific as the principal theater of concern for the United States; this despite the fact that Washington is currently coping with the most demanding conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine has not shaken the conviction of the Biden Administration that countering the Chinese challenge in the Indo-Pacific remains the principal challenge for the United States. “While Russia poses an immediate and ongoing threat to the regional security order in Europe and it is a source of disruption and instability globally”, the NSS 2022 says, “it lacks the across-the-spectrum capabilities of the PRC”, that presents “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge”.
In an important new formulation, the NSS highlights the intricate interconnections between European and Indo-Pacific security. It argues that “US interests are best served when our European allies and partners play an active role in the Indo-Pacific” including in “supporting freedom of navigation” and “maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. At the same time, the US wants “our Indo-Pacific allies to be engaged cooperatively with our European allies….by standing up to Russia” while cooperating with the European Union and the United Kingdom in “our competition with the PRC”. The NSS document adds that “this is not a favor to the United States. Our allies recognize that a collapse of the international order in one region will ultimately endanger it in others”.
These efforts from the United States led to a series of initiatives from the European powers—including France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and the European Union—to outline strategies for engaging with Indo-Pacific security. Skeptics, however, are not convinced that Europe will bring the sustained commitment necessary for engagement with the Indo-Pacific. One reason given is Europe’s long-standing ‘China-first’ policy in Asia. Europe’s special interest in China—unsurprising given the size and attractiveness of the Chinese market—also raised questions about European willingness to make serious commitments to countering Beijing’s power.
Yet, Europe has moved steadily in the direction of playing a new role in the Indo-Pacific. This direction has not been shaken—not yet at least—amidst the war in Ukraine. The NATO Summit meeting in Madrid in June 2022 saw the participation of leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. This, too, is a culmination of NATO’s efforts to engage with Asian countries in recent years.
It is important to note that this is not about Europe once again taking interest in Asia and looking beyond its recent preoccupations within Europe. Rising Asian powers have increasingly engaged Europe as part of their growing global stakes. While China’s main interests are in Asia, it has begun to support Moscow’s strategic objectives in Europe. Beijing’s independent interest in Europe, too, has been growing. For instance, over the last few years, China has sought to deepen its engagement with the East and Central European countries under the framework of ‘sixteen-plus-one’.
Japan’s interest in Europe has rapidly grown in recent years, as well. Japan’s late premier, Abe Shinzo, who first articulated the concept of the Indo-Pacific, also campaigned for a larger European role in the East. Abe understood the scale and scope of the challenges presented by China and the need for the widest possible coalition for securing the Indo-Pacific. He actively worked to draw Europe, especially the United Kingdom and France, into the Indo-Pacific.
Seoul, traditionally insular and focused on the security challenges in the Korean Peninsula, has been more outward-oriented under the new president Yoon Suk-yeol. Beyond the decision to participate in the NATO summit, Korea has emerged as an interesting player in the Ukraine conflict, supplying advanced weapons systems and arms to the leading frontline state in the conflict—Poland.
India, which had traditionally championed the idea of Asian solidarity against the West, is now actively cooperating with the US under the Quad framework. It has also stepped up its engagement with France in the Western Indian Ocean. Delhi is eager to draw Europe into balancing an assertive China in the Indo-Pacific.
Asia and Europe, then, have turned a full circle. Contrary to the widespread assumption that the imperial era was a one-sided affair—of Europe dominating Asia— there was dynamic interaction between the security politics of Europe and Asia. The competition among the European powers shaped the dynamics of Asia in the colonial age. Less noted is the fact that Asian states, too, contributed to the outcomes of the intra-European conflict.
Indian armed forces, for example, played a major role in facilitating British primacy in the Indian Ocean during the 19th century, contributing a million men to the First World War and two million in the Second World War. As Asia rises, its internal conflicts (for example, China’s disputes with its Asian neighbors) are leading to new coalitions with the Western powers. Similarly, emerging Asia is likely to play an ever-expanding role in shaping the conflict between the Sino-Russian alliance and the West.
About the Author
Prof C. Raja Mohan is a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.
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Image: “Stormy sea with sailing vessels” by Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682). Jean Louis Mazieres, Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum of Madrid.