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EU’s courtship of Indo-Pacific gets cold shoulder from big powers

EU’s courtship of Indo-Pacific gets cold shoulder from big powers

by host

BRUSSELS — Europe planned to get dozens of Indo-Pacific foreign ministers to Brussels for talks on Friday, with the EU eager to prove its relevance in a region increasingly under pressure from an assertive China.

In the end, the EU couldn’t even attract ministers from its own influential countries.

France’s new Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné and Germany’s Annalena Baerbock were missing from the EU’s third Indo-Pacific ministerial meeting, citing scheduling clashes. Italy’s Antonio Tajani also skipped the Indo-Pacific part, and joined only an afternoon session with Southeast Asian countries.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell sought to downplay the significance of the European absence.

“Well, not everybody can be at the same time everywhere, you know,” Borrell told reporters on the margins of the meeting. “They have other things to do, more pressing and urgent responsibilities … I’m blaming them? No.”

The EU also felt the absence of four of the West’s closest allies in the Indo-Pacific.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yōko Kamikawa, Australia’s Penny Wong, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar of India, and new South Korean minister Cho Tae-yul all skipped the meeting. Lower-level officials took their places.

EU officials stressed the presence of a large number of delegations at the Brussels meeting, with 20 EU ministers and around 25 ministers from the Indo-Pacific region, out of a total of around 70 delegations.

The Pacific countries are also more widely represented this year, an EU official said.

The annual meeting between the two sides began in 2022 in Paris during the French presidency of the Council of the EU, just days before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Last year, it took place in Stockholm, when the rotating presidency fell to Sweden.

This time, however, Belgium — which is currently presiding over the Council of the EU — opted not to be a cohost. “They did send Princess Astrid to join the ministers for lunch,” said a European diplomat. “But that’s about it.” The Belgian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

US-China focus

The other notable absentees were China and the United States.

While Beijing has never been on the guest list, the U.S. was invited to the Stockholm meeting last year, with U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet attending.

“I don’t know the reasons why, whether they [U.S. and China] were invited, or what was the reason they did not attend this,” Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Jalil Jilani said.

Borrell pledged to beef up the EU’s role in Indo-Pacific security, even though he acknowledged the EU’s core focus is on Ukraine and the Middle East.

“Certainly we don’t have a fleet to deploy. But we have a coordinated maritime presence,” Borrell said. “We Europeans are very much busy with the wars in our neighborhood, but we understand that the South China Sea will be one of the hotspots in the world… We are very much aware of the boiling situation.

“I hope to be able to travel to the region before the end of my mandate to sign agreements with some of these countries on security,” he said.

Double standards

The Middle East clearly overshadowed the meeting, as the West has been criticized by developing countries for failing to condemn Israel for the ongoing war in Gaza.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi used her opening remarks to call on EU ministers to do more to stop Israeli action.

“No state is above the law … The respect [for international law] should also be applied to Palestine,” she said. “Will we continue to keep silent?”

“I would like to make an appeal to all of you to listen to your heart, and do the right thing, to stop atrocity in Gaza,” Marsudi added.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry slammed the West for double standards.

“There cannot be two double standards for what’s happening in Ukraine and what is happening in the Middle East,” Sabry said.

“That sentiment was expressed by most of those who came from the Global South,” he told reporters, adding that this message doesn’t go down well with some European leaders. “But particularly the young politicians share the same value. Most of them feel that the credibility of the Western world is at stake unless you treat all of them equally.”

Even Borrell himself got distracted by the Middle East. Asked about the accusations from developing countries, Borrell acknowledged that “different positions” existed among EU countries.

“It’s good to know how the others perceive us,” he said. “It’s good to know, and has to be taken into consideration.”

He also outlined the EU’s plan to send military ships to the Red Sea to protect commercial vessels under Houthi attack, Borrell stressed that the EU mission wouldn’t involve attacking anyone.

The mission “is a shield; it’s purely defensive,” said Borrell. “Our purpose is not to conduct any kind of attack, but just to defend.” 

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