EU unveils Indo-Pacific strategy, tries to allay China fears

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union on Thursday unveiled a new strategy for boosting economic, political and defense ties in the Indo-Pacific, just hours after the United States, Britain and Australia announced a new security alliance likely to reshape their relations with the vast region.

The EU believes the region, which stretches from India and China through Japan to Southeast Asia and eastward past New Zealand to the Pacific, is growing in importance given its rising population and political weight, its role in global trade and security and its impact on climate change.

It says the aim of the strategy is to strengthen and expand economic relations while reinforcing the respect of international trade rules, help partners fight and adapt to climate change and biodiversity loss, and boost cooperation on health care so least-developed countries can better prepare for crises like the coronavirus pandemic.

The plan, which comes amid rising U.S.-China tensions, is also to improve maritime security and ensure safe passage through sea lanes. The EU hopes it will result in more naval deployments to the region by European countries. Transport and energy ties would also be beefed up.

The EU is already the top investor, leading development cooperation partner and one of the biggest traders in the Indo-Pacific. But it wants to step up its involvement given the rise in regional geopolitical tensions which are hurting trade and supply chains and undermining security.

The 27-nation bloc’s relations with China are currently at a low point, but the EU insists that the move is not aimed at countering Beijing’s influence, even though the strategy does foresee the deepening of trade and investment ties with Taiwan.

“On many areas such as climate and biodiversity, China’s cooperation is essential. Our strategy is one of cooperation, not confrontation. I think it’s important to stress this sentence: our strategy is built on the will to cooperate, not to confront it,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters.

The new security alliance between the U.S., Britain and Australia, which is aimed at equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, is already seen as a provocative move by China. Beijing believes it will undermine regional stability and jeopardize efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

The alliance has also angered France for resulting in the termination of a lucrative submarine contract with Australia. Asked about it, Borrell said that “these events show the importance of the region and the need for us to engage there.”

Borrell lamented that the Europeans had not been informed about the security alliance. EU foreign ministers are expected to discuss it when they meet next month.