France brings Indo-Pacific to centre stage in European Union

Ministerial Forum on Indo-Pacific Cooperation in Paris


February 23, 2022

/ By / Paris

France brings Indo-Pacific to centre stage in European Union

France hosts EU Ministerial Forum on Indo-Pacific (Photo: Diplomatie France)

By hosting representatives from nearly 60 countries and regional organisations in Paris for the first-ever ministerial conference on the Indo-Pacific, France has aptly used its Presidency of the European Union to put the focus of the EU on the rather distant Indo-Pacific region and the implications of the region’s volatile security situation.

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Even while the global attention has been fixated on the volatile security situation in Ukraine and the mounting tensions between an increasingly assertive Russia and the Western powers, France hosted a unique gathering of almost 60 ministers and senior representatives from around the world to focus on another very volatile region of the world — the Indo-Pacific where China has been increasingly displaying its military might, sending nations in the region scurrying towards the United States for their security.

On February 22, the French government, as part of its Presidency of the Council of European Union, hosted the first-ever Ministerial Forum on Indo-Pacific in Paris. The Forum was co-hosted by Josep Borrell Fontelles, Vice President of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Ministers from 53 countries of Europe and Indo-Pacific region along with heads of regional organisations participated in this unique meet that sought to boost cooperation between the EU and the Indo-Pacific countries, notably under the Global Gateway strategy that was recently adopted by the EU to countervail China’s Belt & Road Initiative.

Calling the forum a grand success, France says that the forum displayed the shared ambitions of the participating countries notably in desire to work together for peace and prosperity as well as sustainable and inclusive development in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific. The forum also reaffirmed the participants’ firm support to a rules-based international order as well as to democratic values and principles, reinforcing of multilateralism and respect of international law and freedom of navigation as per the United Nations’ Convention on Law of the Sea.

The other subjects of interest where the nations represented reached broad consensus was promotion of development in the Indo-Pacific region and reinforcing cooperation between the EU and the regional partners.

Though China was never mentioned in the dozens of speeches and press communiques issued during and after Forum, by the end of the gathering, the French had achieved their objective — putting Indo-Pacific on the centre-stage with the European Union and the way EU’s interests are threatened by the volatile situation in the region.

Countering an assertive China

Over the past decade or so, the situation in the Indo-Pacific, notably in and around the South China Sea has become extremely tense with increasing Chinese incursions in the region, notably by establishing its military outposts even on the smallest of the islands.

Not just the seas, China has also been increasingly aggressive its relations with India as relations between the two Asian giants have nosedived in the past five years. The Chinese Army has been increasingly intruding into Indian territory be it in the easternmost fringes on the border with Arunachal Pradesh or the Doklam Plateau on the trijunction between Bhutan, India and China and in Ladakh. India accused Chinese forces of occupying this strategic piece of land which could seriously undermine connectivity to India’s Northeast. After a 73-day standoff between the two forces, conflict gave way to consultations and an agreement was reached, where the two forces agreed to pull back. China was also supposed to stop building roads and other infrastructure in the region.

However, as has become clear since, China has neither pulled back from Doklam nor has it stopped its construction activities in the area, giving it an unprecedented and almost insurmountable advantage vis a vis the Indian or Bhutanese forces. The situation is no different in Arunachal Pradesh or Ladakh where, too, the Chinese PLA has taken a strong foothold and enjoys a significant edge over Indian forces, leading India to voice concern about the sanctity of international borders.

These differences reflect greater competition between India and China, most of all a strategic competition and a show of muscle power. They also are part of growing differences between India and China over numerous developments in the region, including the Belt & Road Initiative of Jinping as well as Chinese attempts to build a string of pearls in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea in an attempt to surround India with territories which have a significant Chinese presence, military or civil.

Though it is always hazardous to scrutinise or even guess the reasons behind China’s actions, one school of thought believes that China has become very aggressive with India ever since the foreign and security policies of the Indian government began to resemble those of the United States and its staunch allies, notably Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Things were not always so bad between New Delhi and Beijing. When Narendra Modi took charge as Prime Minister in 2014, he seemed to be getting along well with the Chinese President Xi Jinping   seemed to progress smoothly until late 2016 when Modi brought about a dramatic shift in Indian foreign policy and prioritised building ties with the United States, even at the cost of other countries.

Soon enough India seemed to have jettisoned its independent policies and was just a mirror of the priorities and policies of the White House, signing a number of defence deals as well as other agreements including mounting joint naval exercises along with Japan, South Korea, Australia and United States. None of the participating countries cared to camouflage even slightly that the exercises targetted China.

Irked by seeing India walk into a tight embrace with the United States, Jinping’s China changed gears in South Asia as well. It began building up its infrastructure and force along the border and also penetrate other countries in the region in an attempt to isolate India. Since 2017, Jinping has been playing cat and mouse with India, capitalising on the huge gap in the military capabilities of the two nations. Not only does China spend well over USD 100 billion more on its defence forces each year, but its capabilities across the entire gamut of military are beyond India’s reach  — be it logistics, infrastructure, material or men.

Jinping has exploited to his advantage the knowledge that even though India never really had a military option vis a vis China, its leaders would keep on boasting otherwise, including the recent claims by Indian Chief of Defence Staff that ‘military option was always on the table’. Jinping has been also playing on fact that Modi would never ever accept to be publicly seen as having yielded ground to Jinping or any other foreign leader as it would puncture forever his carefully cultivated image of a strong and fearless leader.

Thus, to each of the incursions made by Chinese forces in Indian territory, Indian response has been muted and often contradictory. Even during the June standoff in Galwan, Modi claimed that China had not crossed into India, even though Indian Army clearly stated otherwise. Jinping is bound to continue to exploit this weakness and occupy an ever-larger chunk of Indian land, until he can force a weakened Modi, and a fragilised India, to accept an unfavourable border deal and sign away for good large chunks of Indian territory in north-west and north east.

India uses Forum to raise LAC incursions

Indian soldiers holding banner asking Chinese troops to fall back into their agreed region (Photo: Twitter)

India, which has been at the forefront of the anti-Chinese alliance that has shaped up in the Indo-Pacific, largely at the bidding of the US but also due to France, was one of the main invitees to the Paris meeting. At the meeting, Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar called for the European Union’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific for a stable multipolar region and the world. Jaishankar cautioned the European Union that it is important to counter the hegemonic designs in the Indo-Pacific or else the forces of disequlilibrium will spread even to Europe.

‘‘Today, we see challenges on that score with the clarity that proximity brings. And believe me, distance is no insulation. The issues we confront in the Indo-Pacific will extend beyond, even to Europe,’’ he said.

Jaishankar welcomed both the EU and France commitment to the security of Indo-Pacific as both have strong partnership presence and interests in the region. ‘‘This remains a maritime century, and the tides of the Indo-Pacific region will certainly help shape its future. Our collective efforts can keep the oceans peaceful, open and secure, and, at the same time, contribute to conserve its resources and keep it clean,’’ he added. “India’s approach is broad-based and emphasises multilateralism, plurilateralism and collective action. These are combined in the Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative launched by Prime Minister Modi at the East Asia Summit in 2019. We are pleased that France, Australia, Indonesia and Japan chair one pillar each. We hope others too will step forward,” the minister said.

While the Forum put the IndoPacific in the focus of the EU, it remains to be seen whether the region stays a priority for the Europeans for long. Indeed, the French initiative is welcome, but EU’s own stance on defence and strategic issues remains highly divided, with a France, notably under President Emmanuel Macron that is keen on a more assertive Europe, with a much larger and unified defence capability, while the powerhouse of the EU, Germany, prefers the defence to be led by the US. The new Chancellor Olaf Schulz, a Socialist, is even less likely than Angela Merkel to take an aggressive posture especially when it comes to strategic issues that go beyond the immediate borders of the EU, or even within.

India would do well to build its own internal capabilities to be able to fend off all strategic challenges on its own, rather than tying its boat to uncertain battleships — be it American or European. Only a completely self-reliant India or AtmaNirbhar Bharat, as Modi’s latest slogan goes, is a secure India.



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