How Ukraine will change Europe's Indo-Pacific ambitions

The Russian invasion of Ukraine reinforces the reality that only France and the UK can lead a European contribution to Indo-Pacific security.

Expert comment Updated 15 December 2022 Published 25 April 2022 3 minute READ

Alice Billon-Galland

Former Research Fellow, Europe Programme

Hans Kundnani

Former Associate Fellow, Europe Programme

The war in Ukraine has dramatically refocused attention on Euro-Atlantic security. As European nations – alongside the US – have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and increased military support to Ukraine, this war will further complicate the already limited ability of Europeans to play a meaningful security role elsewhere.

It could be tempting to conclude that the renewed threat from Russia spells the end of Europe’s embryonic involvement in the Indo-Pacific. For example, the UK’s Integrated Review in 2021 had identified Euro-Atlantic security and Russia itself as the priority for London – and the outbreak of war in Europe seems only to further confirm this. Given limited resources, some analysts see the current war as confirmation that the idea of a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific was always a fantasy which now can no longer be sustained.

Whereas the UK is more at ease following and integrating with a US-led security architecture in the region as evidenced by AUKUS, France sees its role – and the EU’s – as adding value by providing regional partners with a different and less confrontational set of options

Other analysts argue that the two theatres – the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific – are merging into one, especially if China and Russia become closer and as both regions roughly rely on US security guarantees. And because a growing threat from Moscow should not lead to complacency regarding other challenges, some form of European involvement in the Indo-Pacific is even more crucial.

A changing division of labour

However, a more subtle analysis of the security role of different European countries in each theatre, and how they are being changed by the war in Ukraine, shows how these two opposing views can be reconciled.

Before the war, some countries – in particular, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, as well as the EU – had published Indo-Pacific strategies or ‘guidelines’ and deployed naval resources to the region.

Even then the European capacity to get involved in Indo-Pacific security was limited and the main challenge for Europeans was to be seen as reliable partners and achieve a persistent presence in the region. The real fault line in terms of resources and ambitions was between France and the UK on the one hand, and the rest of Europe on the other.

As the Ukraine war refocuses NATO’s role onto its core task of collective deterrence and defence, it will certainly further restrict the ability of most small European states – already with limited assets, interest, and bandwidth – to contribute to Asian security. Even France and the UK may have to recalibrate their priorities and means – especially if the war escalates or as it leads to a revised defence and deterrence posture on the eastern flank.

However, the shock of the Russian invasion has also led to a dramatic increase in German defence spending and, if the so-called Zeitenwende becomes a reality rather than an aspiration – with some increasingly frustrated it is moving too slowly – Germany could revert to something similar to the old West Germany’s Cold War role as the ‘backbone’ of NATO’s conventional collective defence in Europe.

A greater German contribution to European security may allow France and the UK to free up resources to lead a European contribution to Indo-Pacific security, which makes it even more important for the two countries to resolve some of their differences

But despite this increased defence spending and willingness to confront Russia, Germany has not yet changed its approach to China – on which its manufacturing sector, especially the automobile industry, depends as an export market. Many in Berlin are likely to agree with the recent comment by Angela Merkel’s former foreign policy adviser Lars-Henrik Röller that ‘China is not Russia’. As it takes more responsibility for European security, Berlin could prove even more risk-averse in the rest of the world than it was before the war.

Therefore, France and the UK should have limited expectations of what other Europeans, especially Germany, are now willing and able to contribute to Indo-Pacific security. However, a changing division of labour among European countries in Europe could create an opportunity for Paris and London to continue linking the two regions.

A greater German contribution to European security may allow France and the UK to free up resources to lead a European contribution to Indo-Pacific security, which makes it even more important for the two countries to resolve some of their differences.

A shared set of security objectives

Paris and London have roughly similar readings of what is at stake in the Indo-Pacific, as well as similar strategic interests at play which differentiate them from other Europeans. With more than 1.5 million citizens and five permanent military bases, France also has a direct interest in the region which will not be altered by the conflict in Ukraine.

But cooperation between the two has remained limited because of ongoing political tensions over Brexit as well as national posturing and defence-industrial competition. The AUKUS agreement between Australia, UK and US led to an almost complete breakdown in bilateral relations between France and the UK.

Even if tensions and competitions can be managed – and the war in Ukraine has put things in perspective to some extent – there remains a ‘big picture’ divergence between Paris and London around their role in the Indo-Pacific relative to US-led security frameworks and how Europeans can add value to the region.

Whereas the UK is more at ease following and integrating with a US-led security architecture in the region as evidenced by AUKUS, France sees its role – and the EU’s – as adding value by providing regional partners with a different and less confrontational set of options in order to respect sensitivities around great power competition and lower the risk of confrontation with China.

These approaches are not incompatible and could even be complementary as both aim to provide security, stability, and options to roughly the same set of regional partners such as Japan, India, Korea, and the ASEAN countries.

Charting the way forward

Paris and London are likely to continue conducting big operational deployments separately, but should work more closely together on presence operations, sanctions enforcement, and regional diplomacy on areas such as arms control, capacity building, law of the sea, and nuclear proliferation.

How Ukraine will change Europe's Indo-Pacific ambitions 2nd part

To achieve this, France and the UK must be creative and weave together different discussions on the Euro-Atlantic security order post-Ukraine – particularly the division of labour between NATO and the EU –, how the war impacts Europe’s contribution to Indo-Pacific security, and how they wish to link the two theatres and do it together – or not.

Despite competing priorities and tense bilateral relations, this should be on the agenda of the re-elected President Macron and Boris Johnson over the coming months. By resolving tensions and taking a joint leadership role, France and the UK can enable more coordination between Europeans, and therefore provide some much-needed visibility for their partners both in Europe and Asia.