Europe Should Be a Catalyst for Multilateral Order in the Indo-Pacific

21 October 2020   ·   Go Myong-Hyun

Trump’s aversion to multilateralism has opened the space for Europe to take on a pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific: Europe, including Germany, should coordinate the disparate international initiatives and support the development of a single, multilateral framework for the region. This framework could mitigate the great power rivalry and deliver important public goods, including connectivity, maritime security, and trade.

As myriads of white papers and policy reports have pointed out, the Indo-Pacific is arguably the most pivotal region in today’s rapidly changing world. Home to 50% of the world population and 40% of the global GDP and growing, the Indo-Pacific also hosts technological and industrial powerhouses that are on the leading edge of 5G network technology and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Yet the geopolitical landscape of the region is increasingly marred by the great power competition between the United States and China, which is escalating on all fronts: the military tension in the South China Sea, the ongoing trade war that is giving place to the Great China-US Economic Decoupling, and of course, the finger pointing over the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, with China dreaming of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, and the United States bent on interrupting it, the delicate balance between the two great powers that had brought about decades of prosperity and stability has been shattered.  

Europe and Germany Could Coordinate Disparate Initiatives Into One Multilateral Framework

The growing tension is unfortunate given that the region is well poised to become the next growth engine for the global economy. It is not a happy state of affairs for the economies in Asia that depend on China for economic growth and the United States for their security. Absent a bilateral understanding between the two great powers to ensure stability and prosperity, the Indo-Pacific region is very much in need of an alternative to the Thucydides trap, which also counterbalances China’s ambition without jeopardizing economic prosperity that is associated with the Asian giant.

Sensing the inherent demand for a cooperative framework that offers the path forward for the region, global and regional players are rushing in to offer a plethora of initiatives. Germany is the latest player to toss its hat into the ring, with the objective of promoting “a European Indo-Pacific strategy” and making “an active contribution to shaping the international order in the Indo-Pacific”. As Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy paper points out, the region is very much in need of multilateralist institutions and norms. What Europe – and Germany – can do for the region is to coordinate the disparate initiatives and converge their well-meaning visions towards a single, effective operational framework.

Such a framework would necessarily be multilateral, as it would lessen the preponderance of any single power by applying the collective weight of the rest. A multilateral Indo-Pacific framework would be able to mitigate the great power rivalry and deliver the public goods that the plurality of regional actors wants, i.e. connectivity, maritime security, and trade. Politically, a multilateral framework would also address the Chinese criticism that the whole Indo-Pacific concept is simply an excuse for Chinese containment, while reminding China to abide by the international principles of transparency and accountability in its neighborhood.

A Multilateral Indo-Pacific Order Would Need a Multilateral Free Trade Agreement

But for the multilateral Indo-Pacific order to be truly effective it would have to be encapsulated by a multilateral free trade agreement, binding all of the regional actors together and compelling them to play by the same set of rules and principles based on shared incentives. This is exactly what the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) aspired to be for the Asia-Pacific region until the United States withdrew from the agreement in 2017. While the TPP lives on in the form of the Comprehensive and Progressive TPP (CPTPP), without the United States CPTPP is a mere shadow of its former self and the region is now left without a liberal democratic alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).  

The Trump administration, perhaps cognizant that its Indo-Pacific strategy without an economic component is not viable, is currently trying to convince its Asian allies to sign up with the so-called “Economic Prosperity Network” (EPN), which is designed to wean the global supply chain from its dependence on Chinese sources. But EPN, being US centric and intentionally exclusive of China, is simply not a viable solution for the region, obliquely indicated by the Asia-Pacific economies’ continued enthusiasm for RCEP.  

Europe Can Take On A Pivotal Role in the Indo-Pacific

The Trump administration’s instinctive aversion to multilateralism has opened the space for Europe to take pivotal roles in the Indo-Pacific. Although lacking in power projection capabilities and suffering from the tyranny of distance, Europe can bring to the table its positive reputation as international norms setter and help guide regional discussions on the multilateral Indo-Pacific order. Perhaps more importantly, Europe could revitalize CPTPP with its sizable economic influence as some already expect. Its participation in the Indo-Pacific multilateral framework may even rekindle US passion for multilateral trade.  

In the long-run, a multilateral Indo-Pacific order could lead to the readjustment of the current security architecture in the region, which is showing its cracks. The current US led “hub-and-spoke” system of security alliances dates to the early years of the Cold War. Unlike in Europe, where collective security was implemented from the get-go, in Asia, the United States established bilateral security agreements with its allies, but these did not evolve into interlinked security relations amongst these countries.  

A New Multilateral Framework Could Provide A Venue for Security Coordination Beyond Bilateral Sensitivities  

As the result, US allies like South Korea and Japan developed unilateral security dependencies on the United States but little with each other, as they did not see much need to strengthen relations with fellow US allies in the region. In fact, these two countries are more consumed by bilateral issues than working together to overcome critical strategic challenges that lie ahead. But with the integrity of the US-led security architecture being challenged from within, its fragility is more acute in the Indo-Pacific region than anywhere else. The new multilateral framework could give these countries a venue for security coordination and cooperation unconstrained by sensitive bilateral issues.        

European participation, if it comes with a concrete multilateralist vision for peace and prosperity based on the rule of law, would inspire the Indo-Pacific countries to envisage a multilateralist future for the region. Many will also realize that Europe in a multilateralist Indo-Pacific makes sense. Europe, aligned with liberal democracies in the region, can serve as an effective counterweight to China and the United States. It can also guide and support a multilayered, flexible cooperative framework to address issues pertinent to the region such as connectivity, trade, and security. In turn, an Indo-Pacific multilateral framework would empower the voices of small and middle powers hitherto overshadowed by the Sino-US competition and may even mitigate the impact of great power rivalry. Then, the balance would have been restored to the region.