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The EU and its Maritime Security Strategy in the Indo-Pacific

During its meeting on 24th June 2014, the Council of the European Union (EU) adopted the document, proposed by the Greek Presidency, concerning the European Union Maritime Security Strategy (EUMSS), which lays out the framework for operations aimed at effectively facing the challenges related to maritime transport security. The EUMSS Action Plan was adopted on 16th December 2017 to safeguard the EU’s interests and protect its member states (MS) and citizens. This plan addresses risks and threats in the global maritime domain, including organised and cross-border crime, threats to freedom of navigation, threats to biodiversity, unregulated fishing, or environmental degradation due to illegal or accidental discharges.

Safe seas and oceans are crucial for the EU’s free trade, economy, and standard of living. Indeed, 90% of the EU’s external trade and 40% of its internal trade is carried out by sea (Grare, 2021). Moreover, maritime security also includes maritime transport security, linked to the security of ships employed in international trade and domestic shipping, EU ports, and port facilities against intentional unlawful acts.

Concurrently, the EU has interests and responsibilities in the area of global maritime security. That is why the EU actively contributes to the security of the seas and oceans across the globe. In particular, on 19th April 2021, the EU Council agreed to the findings on an EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, a macro-area stretching from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island states and East Asia (European Institute For Asian Studies, 2021). The EU intends to strengthen its political, economic, and military presence in a wide region, which produces about 60% of the world’s GDP (European Union External Action Service, 2021) and contributes two-thirds to the growth rate of the global economy. Furthermore, it represents the theatre of intense geopolitical competition between China and the United States (US) and growing tensions in trade and supply. Therefore, the EU strategy acknowledges China’s renewed assertiveness and suggests intensifying the Union’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

This strategy is multi-faceted and pursues different aims (European Institute For Asian Studies, 2021): from maintaining free international trade to exporting EU standards and regulations (as well as goods and services); from sustainable development to fighting global warming and contributions in the field of security and defence. But the endeavour to preserve a multilateral order remains pivotal to the EU’s action in the Indo-Pacific. Its focus on the Indo-Pacific is in line with a global trend. In fact, from 2016 onwards, Japan, Australia, the US, India, and even the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as EU MS countries such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands, have produced guidelines on the Indo-Pacific region in quick succession. Of course, many EU MS do not have the means or power to projection into the Indo-Pacific.

Three European states, in particular, have intensified their activities in the South China Sea (Benaglia, 2021), an economic and geopolitical sub-region of the Indo-Pacific marked by maritime territorial disputes and the US-China strategic competition. Among them, France has been the most proactive, due to a large number of French territories spread out in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and thus the concern in protecting the 1.5 million French citizens residing there and securing the resources in its Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) (Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaire Etrangères, 2021). Although no longer a member of the EU, the United Kingdom has developed a renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific, as reflected in the Integrated Strategic Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy published in March 2021. Yet, the Johnson government’s willingness to prioritise trade with the major Asian economies – India and Japan, but certainly China – points out that the military presence has the dual purpose of revealing closeness to the US and strengthening Britain’s geo-economic position in the area. For example, London aims to enter the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) through the political support of the main members of the free trade treaty, namely Japan and Australia.

In April, the United Kingdom announced a new aircraft carrier for a 28-week operational deployment from the Mediterranean to the East China Sea via the South China Sea (Roy-Chaudhury, 2021). HMS Queen Elizabeth, the lead ship of the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carriers – with 18 F-35 fighters – is supplemented by two destroyers, two frigates, and two support ships. The new flagship of the British fleet will carry out joint exercises with several partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific. The presence of a Dutch warship throughout the operational deployment, and the intention to make the aircraft carrier’s bridge interoperable with the F-35s of the US and Japanese armed forces are also worth mentioning. Germany is also planning to send a warship to the Indo-Pacific in 2021 (Rajagopalan, 2021). The frigate will sail to the East China Sea. It will carry out its main activities with regional partners, such as Japan, and will not exceed the 12 nautical miles of the disputed geographical features in the South China Sea. However, suppose that the warship will avoid joint exercises with the British aircraft carrier battle group. In that case, it can be argued that the signal sent by Berlin, which takes a more cautious stand, is different from those of Paris and London.

The document approved by the EU Council in favour of a more active engagement in the Indo-Pacific is a political signal that is fully aligned with the March 2019 EU-China Strategy, which makes explicit competitive dynamics on the economic front and a systemic rivalry between the two players. Thus, the cooperative and competitive logics of China remain in the European view on the Indo-Pacific.

Written by Lorenzo Giordano 



Benaglia, Stefania, “How can the EU navigate the Indo-Pacific?”, Centre for European Policy Studies, January 28, 2021, [online]. Available at: [Accessed September 8, 2021].

Roy-Chaudhury, Rahul, “Understanding the UK’s ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific”, International Institute for Strategic Studies, April 15, 2021, [online]. Available at: [Accessed September 9, 2021].

European Institute For Asian Studies, “Assessing the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy”. August 17, 2021, [online]. Available at:

European Union External Action Service, “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, April 19, 2021, [online]. Available at: [Accessed September 8, 2021].

Grare, Frédéric, “The EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy: A chance for a clear message to China and Europe’s allies”, European Council on Foreign Relations, April 22, 2021, [online]. Available at: [Accessed September 9, 2021].

Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaire Etrangères, “The Indo-Pacific region: a priority for France”, July 2021, [online]. Available at: [Accessed September 10, 2021].

Rajagopalan, Rajeswari Pillai, “UK Deploys Aircraft Carrier in the Indian Ocean”, The Diplomat, April 30, 2021, [online]. Available at: [Accessed September 10, 2021].