EU attempts to talk Indo-Pacific relations amid looming Ukraine crisis

Despite efforts to build a collective European strategy towards Asia, the situation in Ukraine stole the focus on Tuesday

EU foreign minister Josep Borrell speaks at the Ministerial Co-operation Forum in Paris, as part of the French EU Council Presidency. AFP
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Safe maritime trade links between Europe and Asia are vital to future trade, prosperity and the global economy, EU officials said on Tuesday, at a ministerial gathering to discuss the bloc's strategy towards the Indo-Pacific region under the shadow of the crisis in Ukraine.

“Before it was spices and today it is microchips, but together the Indo-Pacific and EU represent 70 per cent of world trade and more than half the world’s economy, so it’s in our interest to work together,” EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said as he opened the summit in Paris.

“When a boat blocks the Suez Canal it costs €500 million a day, 40 per cent of our trade goes through the straights of the Indo-Pacific region … if these routes are blocked then our entire foreign trade is blocked,” he told assembled ministers and delegates from nearly 30 countries and organisations from the east coast of Africa to Japan and elsewhere.

"The geopolitical risks are enormous and the prosperity of your and our countries are [at sake].

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, whose office organised the summit, pushed the role of the EU as a defender of a rules-based world order that protects free trade, interconnectedness, privacy and human rights and co-operation to tackle global threats from climate change to pandemics.

“The fight for the common good is a collective fight,” he said.

Despite trying to focus on Indo-Pacific affairs, the Ukraine crisis overshadowed the summit.

“Russian troops in Donbas I wouldn’t say is a full invasion, but they are on Ukrainian soil,” Mr Borrell said, as he arrived at the forum. He declined to comment until after a meeting of EU ministers later in the day on sanctions or any specific European response to Russia recognising breakaway Ukrainian republics and deploying forces overnight on Monday.

EU officials hinted, however, that initial response would likely be limited given divisions on how to move forward and the extent to which Moscow’s moves represent a transgression of red lines.

“Russia no longer has the power to dominate, so it disrupts,” said Mr Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission.

He said that having lived through decades of peace and co-operation in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was vital that a new Iron Curtain is not drawn across the continent.

Free movement of maritime trade is a central point of discussion on Tuesday and it is likely that China will feature high on the agenda despite not being invited to the meeting.

“In our region, the logic of power is becoming increasingly manifest,” Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told delegates, highlighting the threat such as the North Korean ballistic missile tests.

“China has escalated unilateral attempts to change the status … of the South China Sea and Russia and China have taken steps that are concerning,” he said. Japan will invest in bolstering defence and US ties, he said.

French diplomatic sources told The National that the decision not to invite China was because the summit is aimed at a collective EU strategy with Indo-Pacific, not any one country and that the EU already has a well laid-out approach to Beijing.

“The EU view of China is as a systemic rival, an economic competitor and a partner for relations on a number of issues,” the source said. The extent to which China will be the focus of Tuesday’s summit will be up to the participants, they said.

“The EU way to behave is co-operation – the pandemic has shown that co-operation is the only way to build the world of tomorrow,” the source said. “But we’re not naive – major countries are showing assertiveness on the world stage co-operation is the solution.”

The US is also excluded from Tuesday’s meeting but the source said that the European approach will be taken in close co-operation with Washington and that they wanted to focus on the EU rather than take a global approach to relations with Asia.

Canada, however, is in attendance.

French-US ties were strained last year when Australia scrapped a deal to buy billions of dollars worth of advanced submarines from Paris in favour of a pact with Washington.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne is attending Tuesday’s summit but the French diplomatic source said they did not envisage Mr Le Drian would meet her on the sidelines.

The summit, they insisted, is part of France’s presidency of the European Council and so came as part of that EU role rather than to raise national priorities.

Updated: February 22, 2022, 9:51 AM
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