Regardless of its challenges to transatlantic ties, AUKUS has opened a window of opportunity for Indo-Pacific countries India and Japan, and the EU, to deepen their partnerships.
More than the AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) pact itself, it is the manner of the announcement and the reaction to this trilateral security agreement that will shape its legacy. The inking of the pact has not only created a stir in the strategic community, but also caused a rift between the many democratic partner states of the parties involved. The signing of AUKUS took diplomats, academics, politicians, and defence experts all by surprise—more so in Europe.
The EU had long been called to formulate a long-term, independent Indo-Pacific strategy. With unfortunate timing, AUKUS was announced on the very day that EU finally published such a strategy, expressing the bloc’s desire to expand its profile and action in the Indo-Pacific. As a result, AUKUS has only strengthened calls for what the leaders of EU termed as their version of “strategic autonomy”; French President Emmanuel Macron wishes to build a conscious “European sovereignty”, while the (outgoing) German Chancellor Angela Merkel has argued that Europe must shape its own future as dependence on the US is no longer plausible. As Macron prepares for presidential elections in France in next May and Merkel’s retirement in 2021 puts the future of German—and EU—politics into doubt, AUKUS has put transatlantic ties to diplomatic and strategic turmoil.
Ultimately, however, Paris (and EU) post AUKUS acknowledge that while the US may be less centred on European interests, it nonetheless stays a key partner for EU states. European Council President Charles Michel argued that AUKUS highlights the “need for a common EU approach in a region of strategic interest”, implying the need for more vigorous military collaboration between EU countries, thus assuming greater liability for continental security, even as Washington remains a critical partner. The goal is not to make Europe militarily free from the US, but rather to make Brussels a more dependable and indispensable partner, and a primary stakeholder for US’ strategic policies globally.
France’s ambition for “strategic autonomy” is visible in the creation of a 5,000-strong EU rapid intervention force to provide independent security options to the bloc post US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which took over a huge part of EU states’ military budgets. The mission in Afghanistan was a collective security endeavour, yet the decision to withdraw was unilateral; although the withdrawal decision was not a surprise, its execution—which failed to account for EU interests—certainly drew a fissure in transatlantic ties. Ultimately, Taliban’s return to power and now the AUKUS have indicated to the EU that even a democratic US administration will not hesitate to undercut European stakes and prioritise their own national interest.
REFRAMING TRANSATLANTIC TIES?
In this context, the EU must devise a clear short-term strategy that can help it achieve its goal of remaining an active actor in the Indo-Pacific. Even with the adoption of a formal Indo-Pacific strategy, France is the only EU power with territory (and therefore a primary stake) in the region. France can now use its EU Presidentship, and prowess as one of Europe’s most potent military powers, to realise such a “strategic autonomy” strategy. While such a strategy may be suitable for India and Japan, who were also left out of the AUKUS discussions by their Quad partners Australia and US, and the bilateral “strategic” partner UK, France’s anger at AUKUS will adversely impact transatlantic ties, especially NATO.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasised that the “agreement is not directed against Europe or NATO” and that “we should not allow this issue to cause a rift in the transatlantic alliance”. While such a vision is certainly commendable, it is important that Europe chooses this opportunity to strategically balance its demands. For instance, as the US sought to mend ties with France post-AUKUS, it not only acknowledged that there was a lack of consultation amongst allies, but also vowed better actions in the future—while indicating support for a number of key French policy objectives, like more logistical aid in Sahel.
The time could be ripe for Europe to use fears of a crack in the transatlantic alliance to gain Washington’s support for goals dear to Brussels’ national interests. For instance, Central European NATO and EU members were upset by the lifting of US sanctions on the North Stream II gas pipeline, clearly endangering their energy security. EU partners can now re-question this removal of sanctions, not only asking for their re-imposition but also showing their readiness to take strategic advantage of a diplomatic failure on the part of the US, balancing the power status between the two but realising that the long-term cooperation is essential for Europe and its long-term security challenge with China and Russia.
THE CHINA FACTOR
AUKUS has highlighted US-China and transatlantic discord alike. Notably, many EU members joined France in questioning the development and even postponed preparations for the US-EU inaugural trade and technology council scheduled for 29 September. Along with EU-China booming trade, such transatlantic division could unfortunately further push the EU towards China.
Despite growing concerns regarding its breach of international norms in Hong Kong, human rights violations in Xinjiang, coercive military diplomacy in various regional pockets of Indo-Pacific, and assertive behaviour on the international stage, EU has been unable to have a common position on China. Beijing’s economic interdependence with some EU nations underpins diverging complex national interests, preventing a common EU position on China.
For instance, in April 2020, as the EU ambassadors banded together against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) due to issues over international transparency norms, Hungary refused to sign the report. Further, Germany rushed to push the EU-China trade deal in December 2020, despite criticisms by many EU member states, highlighting Germany’s close trade links and economic dependence on China. In fact, China overtook the US to become the EU’s largest trading partner this year, emphasising its deep-seated economic engagement and influence within the EU.
In contrast, a recent spat between Lithuania and China due to the Baltic country authorizing a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius, witnessed China utilizing diplomatic and economic coercion to retaliate against Lithuania’s decision. Lithuania’s decision to withdraw from this year’s 17+1 cooperation over “divisive” politics unravelled the other side of the coin, which was increasingly protesting against China’s assertive policies and conduct. As many EU nation-states have already expressed their concerns over China’s “divide and rule” tactic, an inability to push for a common EU approach could push the grouping more towards China.
THE WAY FORWARD
Regardless of its challenges to transatlantic ties, AUKUS has in fact opened a window of opportunity for Indo-Pacific countries India and Japan, and the EU, to deepen their partnerships. The EU’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy for Cooperation” already intends to step up engagement with key Indo-Pacific partners, especially India and Japan. India and Japan can be pivotal partners in areas of imperative focus under the EU’s Indo-Pacific outlook, like supply chain diversification, trade, climate change, biodiversity loss, the socio-economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and maritime security. Greater EU-India cooperation was already highlighted during the EU-India Leaders’ Meeting earlier this year, where health preparedness for Covid-19, climate change and green growth, trade, connectivity, and technology were recognised as domains for strategic collaboration for a “safer, prosperous and a more democratic world”.
Simultaneously, India has also been witnessing greater opportunities to collaborate with France post the AUKUS announcement. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to President Macron as a “friend” and discussed ways for “closer collaboration between India and France in the Indo-Pacific,” adding that India and France “place great value on [their] Strategic Partnership”. Accordingly, both leaders agreed to regular consultations to further their cherished partnership. In this context, AUKUS has acted as an incentive for India and France, and broadly the EU, to focus on diverse sectors, such as trade and investments, defence and security, health, education, research and innovation, energy and climate change, underpinning shared commitment to create a safe and secure region.
In a similar vein, a myriad of opportunities awaits Japan-EU relations, highlighted during the Japan-EU joint statement released earlier this year, in the field of health, trade connectivity and innovation (amongst others) to “ensure a more secure, democratic and stable world”. Besides, cooperation in the Indo-Pacific by focusing on a “peaceful, open, equitable, stable and rule-based order” to ensure “peace, stability, security, and development” was also underscored during the India-Japan-Italy trilateral held on 17 June this year.
These areas are remarkably similar to EU-India interests, pointing to the possibility of trilateral cooperation between India-Japan-EU. Not only could such a grouping forge joint strategic and commercial collaborations in the Indo-Pacific, but also reach out to third regions (like Africa) in the future. These, if anything, reiterated the EU’s intentions to branch out beyond China in Asia and expand collaboration with various other regional countries to balance its dependence on the US and China, while enhancing its economic and strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Dr Niklas Swanstrom is the Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm, Sweden. Dr Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.