“Asia and the Indo–Pacific are the world’s new centres of gravity”

Strengthening stability

Europe is committed to bolstering defence and security in the Indo–Pacific region


NOVEMBER 2021 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair 

On 16 September, the EU announced the details of its Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo–Pacific. But its thunder was stolen somewhat by the launch, the day before, of the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the UK, and the US — and the ensuing row over the cancellation of Australia’s €56 billion submarine order with France. Nevertheless, the catalysts for the strategy and the pact are the same: growing concerns over stability and security in the Indo–Pacific region.

There are potential threats from a number of quarters, including the unpredictability of North Korea and its expanding military capabilities, maritime piracy, and the growing dangers from cyberattacks. When laying out the strategy, the EU was at pains to emphasise that it was not directed solely at China. But there is no avoiding the fact that the biggest fears are the actions of the Chinese Communist Party, in particular, its expansionism in and around the South China Sea.

The EU’s strategy “is about cooperation, not confrontation”, says EU Ambassador to Japan Patricia Flor, who notes the bloc is taking a holistic approach “not limited to defence”.

The plans do include measures to boost cooperation on trade, ocean governance, green alliances, pandemic preparedness, and research and innovation, but it is the security elements that are inevitably attracting the most attention.

As to the necessity for the EU to be involved in the region, Flor says, “It’s clear that Asia and the Indo–Pacific are the world’s new centres of gravity, if you look at economic growth. So, the EU has vital interests here in this region. Just imagine for a moment how our stability and prosperity would be threatened if we had instability or conflict in this region.”

A central pillar of the defence and security strategy is ensuring freedom of navigation and safe, secure shipping lanes, notes the ambassador, who points to the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) concept as being crucial to this. A CMP pilot case was launched at the beginning of the year in the Gulf of Guinea, off West Africa, with the aim of preventing piracy and kidnapping.

This year, naval forces from countries such as the US, the UK, Japan, and Australia have been carrying out coordinated drills in the Indo–Pacific. And at the start of this month, a German warship — the navy frigate Bayern — visited Japan for the first time in 20 years.

“Joint exercises in the Indo–Pacific area between Japan and the EU or between Japan and some member states reflect a shared vision for maintaining the rules-based international order and, at the same time, promote maritime security in the region, protect the world’s maritime domain from all traditional as well as non-traditional threats, and enhance prosperity through peaceful and stable oceans,” states the EBC Aeronautics, Space, Defence & Security Committee in the EBC’s white paper.

Currently, the EU is not seen as being a major player in the region in terms of security and defence cooperation in the way that the US is. This is a perception the new strategy seeks to change. And while the EU is looking to avoid the kinds of trade disputes that the US has engaged in with China, it’s not planning a policy of appeasement either.

“We encourage China to play a responsible role in a peaceful and growing region,” says Flor. “At the same time, we will not hesitate to protect our interests or push back and voice our disagreements where they exist, for instance, on human rights.”

As for Japan, Flor suggests the nation is the EU’s “front-runner” as a partner for engaging in the region.

Although US contractors are relatively entrenched in Japan, for historical and political reasons, some European firms have long been working in the country’s defence sector.

“Joint exercises between Japan and the EU … in the Indo–Pacific area reflect a shared vision for maintaining the rules-based international order”

Airbus delivered its first helicopter to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in 1986, and its aircraft are currently being used by the Japan Coast Guard and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, according to Stéphane Ginoux, head of the aerospace firm for Japan and North Asia.

Airbus also collaborated with Kawasaki Heavy Industries on a helicopter that is now in service around the globe, the Japanese manufacturer’s only such cooperation with a foreign firm.

“Japan’s Ministry of Defense is currently studying and defining their needs and specifications for an unmanned aerial vehicle system,” explains Ginoux. “We can offer the VSR700 [unmanned reconnaissance helicopter], which can be stationed aboard frigates and destroyers alongside manned helicopters.”

Across the region, Airbus also supplies the air forces of Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand.

German industrial engineering group thyssenkrupp has also been supplying the Japanese defence sector for decades, mainly in the form of turret bearings for armoured vehicles and warships, as well as bearings for radar antennas and ship cranes.

Following the signing of an agreement for defence cooperation in 2017 and the Agreement on the Security of Information this year by the Japanese and German governments, the scope of possible collaboration has expanded, according to Nikolaus Boltze, who represents thyssenkrupp in Japan.   

Included in the firm’s portfolio is technology for naval engineering and ship building, underwater acoustics, and sensors, as well as digital solutions, such as 3D printing for maritime spare parts.

“To enter the market and significantly advance the defence capabilities of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, it is necessary to identify capability gaps that cannot be filled by Japanese or US industry,” says Boltze, who sees significant opportunities for cooperation with Japanese partners.

Demand for such capabilities is likely only to grow for the foreseeable future.

In October — in a clear message to Japan — a joint flotilla of 10 Russian and Chinese ships sailed through the strait separating Honshu from Hokkaido, down past Tokyo, and around Kyushu into the East China Sea.

“The presence of a maritime force is always a signal,” notes Flor, “so the presence of an EU vessel occasionally passing through the South China Seas does matter.”