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The Indo-Pacific has become a new conflict zone these days, with China on one side, and other countries like Japan, Australia, and India on the other side. Organizations like AUKUS and the Quad have been developed.

I can understand the US's interest in the Indo-Pacific, as it wants to contain China and retain its status as the sole superpower in the world.

However, Europe is also taking interest in the Indo-Pacific. European countries have increased co-operation with Asian allies - for example, UK to Australia through AUKUS, and France is getting quite close to India. Also, NATO has declared China a security threat. Lithuania just stirred up some conflict with China regarding Taiwan.

My question is, why are European countries taking interest in the Indo-Pacific conflict? What do they gain from it? What do they lose if they don't concern themselves with it? They could reap benefits from economic co-operation with China - after all China is not at their doorstep unlike Russia so they are safe.

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    France has New Caledonia in the Pacific, in case you didn't know. It's a non-trivial source of some minerals (nickel, lithium). And French Polynesia, although the latter is somewhat more autonomous, IIRC. Sep 17, 2022 at 7:10
  • And China only got included in the NATO docs this year, after it rubbed its shoulders with Russia too much on Ukraine edition.cnn.com/2022/06/29/china/… Sep 17, 2022 at 11:41
  • Regarding Lithuania & Taiwan politics.stackexchange.com/questions/68117/… Sep 17, 2022 at 12:29
  • But many countries have strong traditional ties with the west dating back to the colonial times. The Philippines, Indonesia, and also place like Singapore and Vietnam. It's not just the island nations. Sep 17, 2022 at 13:42
  • Also; Sometimes it is not so much about what you gain when you do it, but more about what you loose if you don't. I think in this case that also plays a big part. Sep 17, 2022 at 13:43

5 Answers 5

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There are multiple aspects to consider. There is also an additional question embedded into your question regarding why European governments are playing a role in an alliance to counter China militarily. This answer will also address that question, but it really comes down to competition on multiple levels.

Ideological

The ideological differences between the Western governments and the Chinese governments are well known, but this has low relevance explaining why European governments are interested this region. In comparison to Cold War 1, the Chinese government does not seek to export socialism as a form of government to other countries. But, there is some interest among the western governments in getting Indo Pacific countries to adopt western like values on issues such as human rights, intellectual property, democracy, etc.

China differs in that it generally does not attempt to encourage countries to adopt domestic reforms in return for economic cooperation. All developing economies want trade agreements on the best possible terms with developed economies. This gives western countries the ability to offer incentives to developing countries for political reforms and influence in return for trade agreements.

It does not work like this today because China itself is still an emerging country, but you can imagine a day where a developing country will have the option to align itself with one of the 3 major spheres (the US, Europe, or China). By introducing another competitor into the picture, a government of a developing country may then have the option to have a major trading partner without having any foreign influence on its domestic political structure. Hence, it's not quite the same as the "domino effect" during Cold War 1, but in general, western governments would feel more comfortable if they were not the only liberal democracies surrounded by a world dominated by authoritarian or socialist countries.

Geopolitics

As you mention, the main thrust of the tension is between the US and China. However, the US is the primary component of NATO, and the US doesn't have as much strategic interest in Europe as it does in the Western Pacific. This creates a problem for European governments that heavily rely on the US for defense.

Meanwhile, the US does not like having a public perception that it is a superpower in a uni-polar world. For example, the Iraq War was almost entirely an American conflict (although the UK also supported it), but the US tried and failed to get NATO on its side. Instead, George W Bush offered several Baltic countries support for entering NATO in return for joining the American side even though their military contribution was very minor due to their size. Why? Because the US didn't want the war to be a US vs Iraq war. It wanted a "Global Coalition" vs Iraq war.

Hence, something similar is happening today where the US wants European support for both international and domestic perception of its actions regarding China even though the ability of the European navies to operate meaningfully so far away from home is quite limited today. America's actions in the South China Sea are much more palatable internationally and domestically if it seen as part of an international coalition rather than a lone superpower. In return, the US is going to remain steadfast in its NATO role even though its interests in Europe are much lower than in the past.

Economics

The European interests in the Indo Pacific are not much different than their interests in Africa. Like other governments, the EU's primary mission is to preserve (and even improve) the economic way of life of its workers in the agriculture, manufacturing, and services sectors. Although less relevant for the US which has a large resource endowment, the governments of the major developed economies need access to raw materials and want to export services and manufactured goods on the best possible asymmetric terms for their country that they can negotiate.

Both parties might benefit from trade agreements in theory, but in practice, one party benefits more than the other. If I'm the economically stronger power and I'm your only option, I can force you to open your market to my cars produced with subsidized electricity in return for me opening my market to your raw aluminum. We both gain, but you will never have the opportunity to build up a domestic car industry. So, my economy keeps the most valuable part of the value chain, and your economy is based purely on job lite resource extraction.

I might also be interested in low cost labor (Indo Pacific) as well in the place of aluminum above, but the principle is the same; I want to keep the most valuable parts of the value chain at home domestically and get market access for my high value exports.

However, suppose a third country enters the picture and offers you more favorable terms such as investment and a promise his/her state owned company will make some cars in your country domestically. I can compete with that country, but I will never get as good a deal as I have today. In some cases, an entire industry may shut down in my country if you make a trade deal with another economy, and I'm not able to get the raw commodities my economy needs. We're not exactly at that point yet, but you can see why the EU views China as a "systemic rival".

Of the three aspects above, economics has the most explanatory power in the events happening today. On the topic of trade with China, that model worked really well when China was providing low cost, mass labor on the lower parts of the value chain. The problem is that now China is moving into high value parts of the value chain, which means its skilled work force could (in theory) be in direct competition with the German and French skilled work force, and that is a big problem. This is also why you see a new hysteria over semiconductor, AI, etc. protectionism. But if you look at each aspect of the situation above, there are basically two global teams forming, and Europe's interests are much more aligned with the non-China team on every single aspect.

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Most European countries like to work in what is called the rules-based international order or liberal international order. They believe that everybody (notably including themselves) would benefit if all the world adopted principles of reasonably free trade (constricted by environmental and social policies), the rule of law, and democracy to uphold all that. Without rules, they fear a race to the bottom where worker's rights, climate protection, etc. are concerned.

With the end of the Cold War it appeared that the liberal international order had 'won.' Fukuyama coined the phrase 'the end of history' at a time when the West deluded itself that no other political and economic model was viable.

Since then, a number of countries have challenged this consensus. Countries like Hungary and Poland challenge the rule of law in the EU, Russia challenges the stability of borders in and near Europe, and China challenges the neo-liberal economic rules worldwide. They are revisionist powers in the sense of power transition theory, while the West benefits from the status quo.

The Western complaints about China include restricted market access, IP theft or extortionate IP transfers as a condition of market access, unfair subsidies and dumping, and more. I guess it comes down to two large areas:

  • China sees Chinese companies as part of a whole-of-government national strategy, while the West sees companies as mostly outside the government (but compare the perennial Boeing-vs-Airbus battles between the US and EU).
  • The West believes that if China were more democratic, Chinese workers would demand higher wages, better living conditions, and a cleaner environment now instead of later. The differences are seen as unfair for a country which is no longer a developing nation. But challenging the political system goes against the core of the Chinese government.
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  • "China challenges the economic rules worldwide" - could you explain this a bit more? What exactly is China doing economically that doesn't sit well with the European powers?
    – whoisit
    Sep 17, 2022 at 16:44
  • @KB, added some paragraphs, but it is not a single thing.
    – o.m.
    Sep 17, 2022 at 17:27
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Trade (and other economic interests).

According to Wikipedia's page on Territorial disputes in the South China Sea:

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea involve conflicting island and maritime claims in the region by several sovereign states, namely Brunei, the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan (Republic of China/ROC), Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. An estimated US$3.37 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually, which accounts for a third of the global maritime trade.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies has a table listing the Trade Value through the South China Sea (in USD billions) for a number of countries. The European countries listed are the following:

Germany: 215

United Kingdom: 124

France: 83.5

Italy: 70.5

For each of these countries, those trade values through the South China Sea correspond to 7.77% to 11.8% of their total trade value.


The Dutch government released a paper in 2020 in which it outlined its vision for the Indo-Pacific. The excerpt focus on geopolitical and economic interests:

The geopolitical and geo-economic balance of power is shifting rapidly. The importance of the Indo-Pacific region is growing. To adequately promote Dutch and other European economic and political interests there – the world’s primary growth region – the Netherlands and the EU need to step up their efforts in the Indo-Pacific and develop a distinctive Dutch and EU vision of the region.

The Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, summarized the paper. I'll selectively quote the parts highlighting economic importance to the Netherlands and the EU at large.

The Indo-Pacific is vital for economic growth of the EU and its member states, as it is home to three out of the four largest economies outside the EU (China, Japan and India) and by 2030, 90 per cent of 2.4 billion new middle income class members will come from the Asia Pacific region.

Stability in the region is closely tied to stability within the EU. The stable and secure supply of critical goods depends on open maritime and trade routes. The strategic competition between the US and China that initially focused on tensions in the South China Sea has contributed to rising antagonisms and a larger great power military presence, as well as intensifying economic and technological rivalry that is further heightening tensions in the region.

Last but not least, the Indo-Pacific is a key region where standards are being set today: technological and market standards that shape the competitiveness also of European companies, as well as governance norms, where democracies increasingly compete with digitally empowered authoritarian states. For example, the secure and ethical use of smart city applications and data by authorities must be ensured, lest they contribute to far-going digital surveillance by states.

In summary, I'd say the whole Indo-Pacific is of interest because there's so much economic activity. The South China Sea is a relatively small area within the region which is of particular importance because of the many trading routes passing through.

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  • Economic activity there is mostly "with" China. Trade routes are for trade with China and Hong Kong. Most other trade is negligible. It seems weird that conflict against China is for trade with China.
    – whoisit
    Sep 19, 2022 at 12:21
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The pacific islands have traditionally been colonized by the Europeans. Particularly the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, the Germans, and the Dutch. The US was only a player at a much later stage.

So before going into where their interest comes from, I think we should first mention that there is not so much a new interest, but more a renewed interest.

There are several reasons for their renewed interest in the pacific islands.

  • It is undeniable that the countries who had colonies in the pacific, today also have a social obligation to take care of the people living on these islands. Especially some of the smaller nations are quite vulnerable, and rely heavily on there western partners for things such as healthcare and security.

  • The west is realizing what China is doing and is concerned about China's behavior. By renewing the ties and strengthening the ties they are trying to make it harder for China to get a foothold in the pacific. Any expansion of China into the pacific is seen as a major threat to, well, basically the rest of the world.

  • Climate change and the risk/reality of the islands submerging into the abyss is also a reason that we are supporting the pacific nations. It is very clear that whatever needs to happen to protect the people on some of the islands, the people themselves will not be able to afford this. In some cases the will need to do some major engineering worse and in other cases the population of entire islands will have to move to an other island or even an other country.

  • In addition to this there is of course the increased threat, or at least perceived threat, by countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan who just do not want the Chinese any closer to their backyard than they are right now. I think most countries feel this way, but I pick out these places simply because they have the means to make a difference and have indicated an interest in just that. And Europe is very closely aligned with these countries as well and they try to form a block. As in; together we stand stronger than individually.

I am sure there are more reasons for the renewed interest of Europe in the pacific nations, but I think the above pretty much sums up the major ones.

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  • @MoziburUllah Please rephrase. Sentence is not clear, nor its meaning. Sep 20, 2022 at 15:29
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    I think you'll find going back a few thousand years that polynesians traditionally inhabited those islands. They were the ones who first colonised those islands. Don't tell me you tjpught they were terra nulla until the Europeans arrived? Sep 20, 2022 at 15:32
  • @MoziburUllah Yes, that is correct. But since the question was a bout the interest of the Europeans in the indo-pascific region, I used the colonial times as an argument for here interest in their presents there. In context I saw little reason to go back in time further since this would not affect the case of the Europeans. Sep 21, 2022 at 16:08
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Well, I haven't heard about any actual conflict in the Indo-Pacific. China is is the Indo-Pacific so it naturally sees that as its sphere of influence. Whereas the USA has toeholds in the Phillipines, Japan and Taiwan. All territories won over by force of arms and in Japan by nuclear arms. I see the USA sabre-rattling in the region to keep China in check because of its increasing economic and military prowess, but hardly on the scale to challenge the USA - still the worlds pre-eminent military power - but at what cost?

China has invested in economic ties across the entire region and in fact globally, with its Belt-Road Initiative, with China investing in 150 countries with infrastructure projects. Quite a few African countries see China as a new alternative to economic ties with the West with the unequal colonial status that once represented. Its lile for them, a fresh new start with the rest of the world. I imagine Europe wants somethimg of that pie, especially as its GDP since 2021 has dipped slightly behind China.

Personally, I see multipolar wprld as a healthier kimd of world. It would be a democracy of nayions. The West it seems, all too often wants femocracy for its own people - becUse their own people knpw hpw to demand it. But to project tyranny outside it. The braggadiccio of the capo de capo.

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