The first-ever Quad Leaders’ Summit took place last month – and it may prove to be a defining moment in Asian geopolitics. Against the backdrop of increased tensions in the region, Joe Biden initiated the virtual exchange with his counterparts in Australia, India, and Japan, a move that underscores the importance of the Indo-Pacific region to the new US administration. Meanwhile, France, Germany, and the Netherlands have each adopted their own Indo-Pacific strategies. The European Union and other member states should now more concertedly work to integrate the Quad into their strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific.
Initially established to provide humanitarian support for countries hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Quad was re-established in 2017 as an informal security format with the intention of countering China’s growing assertiveness, especially in the maritime domain. Since then, it has served as an anchor for cooperation among the participating countries and, while the Quad remains a primarily security-orientated forum, over the last four years it has addressed numerous issues such as connectivity and infrastructure finance. A joint op-ed following the leaders’ summit demonstrates its nature as a flexible cooperation format on supply chains, technology, and climate. In fact, no direct reference to military security was even made during the summit. Instead, its most significant outcome was the announcement of a new vaccine initiative, which will manufacture up to 1 billion Johnson & Johnson covid-19 vaccines in India, with American and Japanese financial support and Australian logistics assistance.
China has been highly averse to the Quad in its past iteration and still regards the format as undermining regional stability. European countries have been careful in the past to not upset relations with China over engagement with regional forums of lesser relevance to Europe’s economic and strategic interest. After all, China has evolved to become the European Union’s largest bilateral partner in trade of goods. But, not least since China’s assertive approach vis-à-vis Europe during the height of the covid-19 pandemic, the EU and its member states are currently undergoing a significant recalibration in their relationship with China. This has been reinforced by recent new sanctions placed on China, as well as a growing understanding in Europe of the need for economic diversification, especially in terms of supply chains. This involves ‘thinking beyond China’ as its single most important market and manufacturing hub. It will entail proactively identifying concrete issues the EU wants to work on in the Indo-Pacific region as well as the partners it wants to work with.
The Quad has already expanded, to a degree – last year a “Quad Plus” arrangement emerged, initially involving New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam, with which the Quad members coordinated vaccine development and public health policies. While it may be too early to expand the Quad more formally, broadening participation through issue-based coalitions will strengthen it as an inclusive, flexible format for multilateral cooperation among democracies. For Europe in particular, the Quad could serve as an effective docking point for the EU to engage in the region, allowing the diversification of relationships with like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific that many Europeans are now looking for. And, in turn, many countries in the region are eager for greater European involvement in the region. India, for instance, has long urged the EU to deploy a more assertive foreign policy there. Japan’s foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, recently addressed the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council to advocate a joint EU strategy.
How could Europe best approach this? To begin with, matters of security remain central. France’s engagement in a joint naval exercise with the Quad members in the Bay of Bengal last week is illustrative of where Europeans could go further. It is not unusual for individual European countries to join minilateral formats or individual bilateral cooperation with the Quad. But if Europeans wish to maximise the impact of their military resources in the Indo-Pacific, they should seek to use these in a more strategic way. With respect to naval deployments, they could set themselves the goal of working together to ensure there is a European naval presence in the Indian Ocean at all times. To achieve this, countries such as Spain, Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands could pool their naval resources with those of France, which already maintains a naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region.
The EU has a role to play here: it has a readily available instrument in the form of the Coordinated Maritime Presence, which it plans to launch in May in the Gulf of Guinea and could form the basis for future naval deployments in the Indian Ocean. It is also possible to envisage fruitful future cooperation with the United Kingdom in the region, not least given the country’s recently stated ambition to deploy naval forces to the Indo-Pacific. This would not only send a clear message to Indo-Pacific partners that Europe is willing to contribute to regional stability as a maritime security provider, it would also serve as strategic messaging to Beijing.
Beyond defence and security there are many other ways in which the EU and its member states can deepen their cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners in the coming years. Working with the Quad in order to contribute to its common vaccine diplomacy initiative is one possibility – the EU should move quickly to join the initiative. This would strengthen an urgently needed global public health effort by countries sharing democratic values and principles. Importantly, it would act as effective counterweight to the Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy already under way. Connectivity projects, including the financing of high-quality infrastructure, would also be a good way to build on exchanges part of EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, the envisaged EU-India Connectivity Partnership, and the United States’ renewed push in the field.
In a period of growing geopolitical rivalry and tensions, the EU and the Quad have a clear opportunity to demonstrate a shared comprehensive commitment to security, stability, and climate based on shared interests and standards. They should now begin to work together more closely to reach their joint potential.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.