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Trump’s Comeback and Europe’s Living Nightmare: The Future of EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

What is happening?

The third EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum took place on February 2, 2024, underscoring the increasingly important role of the Indo-Pacific region. However, even though the EU reiterated its commitment to the Indo-Pacific, the outcome of the upcoming US presidential elections might significantly affect the ties between both regions

On February 12, 2024, Donald Trump sent shockwaves across Europe with his statement that he will not protect NATO allies who do not meet the defense spending of 2 % of GDP per year and might instead encourage Russia in its aggressive behavior. With the ongoing war in Ukraine and Gaza, the potential of Trump’s victory raises questions about the level of priority and the amount of resources that the EU can assign to the Indo-Pacific in the future.

 

What is the broader picture?

The joint EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was first launched in 2021. This was seen as a response to the shifting center of gravity and the region’s growing economic, security, political, and demographic importance. The intensifying competition between the US and China and Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the region also became the driving force behind the EU’s decision to step up its strategic involvement.

However, the implementation of the strategy has not been all smooth sailing. The EU has, until now, failed to present a unified approach, and the scope and scale of the implementation remain primarily dependent on individual member-states. This prevents the EU from effectively addressing their mutual challenges and protecting their interests. Furthermore, while the EU identifies the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea as areas of significant importance as well as core security challenges, the EU’s current presence is mainly in the Indian Ocean, signaling a substantial divergence between the highest priority areas and the areas to which resources are being allocated.

Outside of the EU’s internal dynamics, the implementation has faced further complications as the member-states had to center their attention and resources on the war in Ukraine and the gradually worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza. Both conflicts will last longer and be more costly than the EU and the US have expected, which can affect the EU’s ability to strengthen its position in the Indo-Pacific.

These challenges will likely worsen if Donald Trump wins the 2024 presidential race. Trump’s recent statement represents a continuation of his approach during his first presidency. However, while many of the EU and NATO members have already begun ramping up their military and defense spending, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric, which might soon become reality, can put the EU in an uncomfortable situation. Although the EU is gradually reclaiming its autonomy, Trump’s second term could represent a leap the EU is not ready to make. As such, a certain level of balancing and prioritizing will be necessary for the EU states to uphold their responsibilities in their immediate neighborhoods and the Indo-Pacific. 

 

Why it matters?

The Indo-Pacific region is essential for the EU both economically and from the perspective of Europe’s security. But provided Trump wins his second term, the ongoing war in Ukraine and Gaza means that the EU might have to refocus its efforts on issues closer to home. A cautious approach would advise that as long as war persists in Europe, there is a low chance of deep and comprehensive cooperation with the Indo-Pacific.

On the other hand, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the relatively high chances of Trump’s victory might serve as a wake-up call for Europe to strengthen its autonomy and diversify its cooperation – perhaps including with countries in the Indo-Pacific. More specifically, greater engagement with, for instance, members of the ASEAN, Australia, South Korea, or Japan could bring about greater strategic autonomy and revitalize global multipolarity. This is particularly important in a world where intensifying superpower competition and growing conflicts require countries to become more self-sufficient.