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European forces flex their Indo-Pacific reach

STUTTGART, Germany — For decades France served as the European Union’s main representative in the Indo-Pacific, and as the sole member to maintain regional territories, conducting two to three deployments per year.

But in the past two years, the number of allies and partners stretching their ability to launch long-distance, rapid deployments and maintain operational capacity in the area has increased.

Both Germany and the Netherlands first deployed military vessels to the region in 2021 following the EU’s release of its first Indo-Pacific strategy. The Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen deployed for seven months as part of a British carrier strike group led by the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth. The Dutch also participated in several exercises with Singapore, Japan and the U.S. Navy during that time, as outlined in a March 2023 report from the Hague Center for Strategic Studies think tank.

Germany published its first Indo-Pacific strategy in 2020, with a focus on security and defense, and has asserted itself since then with various services visiting the region each year.

“Today the Indo-Pacific is the most strategically important region on Earth,” German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said in a recent statement. “Important decisions about freedom, peace and prosperity in the world are made here. Germany is also directly affected by this.”

The German Navy frigate Bayern spent six months sailing around the Horn of Africa, across the seas to Australia and Japan. Last year, the German Air Force sent six Eurofighters, alongside tankers and transport aircraft, tasked with reaching Singapore within 24 hours under the moniker “Pacific Readiness.” German Air Force assets also participated in Australia’s Pitch Black exercise during the deployment.

This year, it will be the German Army that heads to the Pacific, as the service will participate in Australia’s Talisman Sabre exercise, taking place July 22-Aug. 4. The combined exercise will also include German naval and air warfare platforms, a spokesperson for the Defence Ministry told Defense News.

“The German exercise participation in Talisman Sabre 2023 offers a very good opportunity to practice interoperability in a high-intensity battle with land, air and sea forces and to send a clear signal of Germany’s solidarity and willingness to cooperate with the value partners in the region,” the spokesperson said in an email.

Next year, the German Navy is expected to send another frigate to the region, this time with a supply ship. In addition, the Air Force may partake in a trinational air deployment between Germany, France and Spain, an Air Force spokesperson told Defense News. As the three nations participating in the next-generation Future Combat Air System program, the deployment would serve as a joint message of solidarity with partners in the Indo-Pacific region, the spokesperson added.

As of this article’s writing, no plan for this joint deployment is finalized, but the hope is to have the three nations sign a letter of intent at the Paris Air Show, taking place June 19-25, per the spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Italy launched its five-month naval deployment out of La Spezia Naval Base to the Indo-Pacific region in early April, as reported by Naval News. The crew of the second Thaon di Revel-class offshore patrol vessel Francesco Morosini will call in 15 ports of 14 countries, and is also participating in several regional operations. This deployment marks the first operational mission assigned to the ship and its crew, and is the first time the vessel will operate out of the Mediterranean basin, serving as a test of its ability to perform a long-distance deployment.

The British Royal Navy will deploy a carrier strike group to the Indo-Pacific in 2025, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced on the eve of the annual G7 summit meeting in May, held this year in Hiroshima, Japan. The news came as Sunak and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, signed the Hiroshima Accord, which entails commitments for closer economic, defense, security and technological collaboration.

The deployment will be the second to the region for Britain’s aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, and the strike group will include naval escorts and F-35 fighter jets partnering with the Japan Self-Defense Forces and other regional partners.

EU aspirations

Alongside individual member nations’ initiatives, the European Union has taken steps to strengthen its security posture in the Indo-Pacific region.

Security there was one of three main topic areas at the second annual EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum, held May 13 in Stockholm, Sweden. About 60 ministerial-level officials from both regions were in attendance, sending a signal that the EU “is realizing that we have a global theater where different regional challenges are interconnected, and we have, therefore, also to have a global approach in cooperating with partners across the globe,” a senior EU official said prior to the forum.

While the official cited maritime domain awareness as a particular defense and security initiative, the individual also described new instruments meant to tackle “significant cyberthreats” in the region, as well as “foreign information manipulation.”

The EU has developed maritime domain awareness through two lines of effort, said Frederic Grare, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia program.

This includes the Critical Maritime Routes Indo-Pacific project series, launched in 2015 as a capability-building exercise built around maritime domain awareness via the Indo Pacific Regional Information Sharing platform. The flagship initiative was built for maritime coordination and communications, coupled with extensive training programs on maritime data processing in the region, per the EU.

The second is the creation of a coordinated maritime presence in the Indian Ocean via joint patrols, exercises and joint port calls, which Grare described as an “embryonic” effort put forth in February 2022 just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine began.

“We are in very, very early phases of implementation, and it’s going to take time before anything really happens on the ground,” Grare said.

Observers and analysts say it’s too early to judge the extent of the EU’s defense and security involvement in the region. Indeed, the Hague Center report noted that as the EU does not operate the equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet based in Japan, “it seems obvious that in case of an open conflict, its role may be close to negligible.”

Many of the EU members’ navies are more structured for littoral and coastal defense, rather than expeditionary warfare, analysts said.

However, the reported added, the bloc’s expertise in crisis management, international maritime law, maritime domain awareness and multilateral cooperation toward piracy, crime, migration and illegal fishing helps address real-world regional needs.

“Capacity building in the above issue-areas constitutes the bulk of European efforts and main contribution to regional maritime security. The naval presence may be the proverbial ‘cherry on top,’ whose main purpose is to add visibility and credibility to its engagement,” the report stated.

Another challenge area lies in the EU’s efforts to pursue something of an intermediary approach between the United States and China. This is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to navigate in the era of great power competition, said Ben Schreer, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Europe office in Berlin.

While members of the G7 expressed strong convergence in pushing back against many of Beijing’s approaches to the war in Ukraine, tension with Taiwan, and economic coercion following their annual meeting in May, the repeated emphasis on “de-risking, not de-coupling” reflected the EU’s approach to China, as well as that of major member nations like France and Germany.

These middle-man approaches run the risk of undermining the more constructive efforts at the military level, noted Schreer. France, for example, has been active in organizing joint deployments through the Indo-Pacific with the U.S. and Australia, and has sailed its own military ships through the Taiwan Strait.

But French President Emmanuel Macron’s April comments on the need to avoid being dragged into a confrontation between the U.S. and China over Taiwan has given some stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific pause, Schreer said. Macron’s comments also led to debate over whether European nations will continue to prioritize their own domestic interests in the Indo-Pacific, rather than a collaborative approach from the whole union, Schreer added.

Regional interlocutors attending IISS’ annual Shangri-La Dialogue, held in Singapore from June 2 through June 4, aren’t necessarily expecting the EU to become “a major player in defense terms,” he explained. But they will be looking at speeches from defense ministers, as well as the EU’s defense and security czar Josep Borrell, about “practical, concrete statements in terms of strengthening the defense posture.”

Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News’ European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards’ best young defense journalist in 2020.

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