How Ukraine will Change Europe's Indo-Pacific Ambitions
The Russian invasion of Ukraine reinforces the reality that only France and the UK can lead a European contribution to Indo-Pacific security. Because, the war in Ukraine has dramatically refocused attention on Euro-Atlantic security. As European nations – alongside the US – have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Russia and increased military support to Ukraine, this war will further complicate the already limited ability of Europeans to play a meaningful security role elsewhere.
The renewed threat from Russia spells the end of Europe’s embryonic involvement in the Indo-Pacific. For example, the UK’s Integrated Review in 2021 had identified Euro-Atlantic security and Russia itself as the priority for London – and the outbreak of war in Europe seems only to further confirm this. Given limited resources, some analysts see the current war as confirmation that the idea of a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific was always a fantasy which now can no longer be sustained.
Other analysts argue that the two theatres – the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific – are merging into one, especially if China and Russia become closer and as both regions roughly rely on US security guarantees. And because a growing threat from Moscow should not lead to complacency regarding other challenges, some form of European involvement in the Indo-Pacific is even more crucial.
However, a more subtle analysis of the security role of different European countries in each theatre, and how they are being changed by the war in Ukraine, shows how these two opposing views can be reconciled. Before the war, some countries – in particular, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, as well as the EU – had published Indo-Pacific strategies or ‘guidelines’ and deployed naval resources to the region.
Even then the European capacity to get involved in Indo-Pacific security was limited and the main challenge for Europeans was to be seen as reliable partners and achieve a persistent presence in the region. The real fault line in terms of resources and ambitions was between France and the UK on the one hand, and the rest of Europe on the other.
As the Ukraine war refocuses NATO’s role onto its core task of collective deterrence and defence, it will certainly further restrict the ability of most small European states – already with limited assets, interest, and bandwidth – to contribute to Asian security. Even France and the UK may have to recalibrate their priorities and means – especially if the war escalates or as it leads to a revised defence and deterrence posture on the eastern flank.
Besides, the shock of the Russian invasion has also led to a dramatic increase in German defence spending and, if the so-called Zeitenwende becomes a reality rather than an aspiration – with some increasingly frustrated it is moving too slowly – Germany could revert to something similar to the old West Germany’s Cold War role as the ‘backbone’ of NATO’s conventional collective defence in Europe.