Reversing “Strategic Shrinkage”: In Search of an EU-India-Japan Trilateral


Even before the war in Ukraine, the European Union had moved towards an “increasingly competitive strategic environment” by developing its geopolitical autonomy to respond to Europe’s security responsibility and reduce strategic contraction. After the invasion of Ukraine, however, security and defense took on greater importance.
Russia continues to be a permanent adversary in wider European opinion. However, it is China’s growing global influence that has given new impetus to the EU’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific, the world’s current and future economic and political center of gravity.

THE GLOBAL GATEWAY —- In 2021, the EU strengthened its strategic outreach to Asia with the publication of the EU Strategy for Indo-Pacific Cooperation and the $300 billion Global Gateway Strategy. euro centered on trade and investment. This new integrated European approach to the region really began in 2018 with the publication of the Indo-Pacific strategies of three of its member countries? France, Germany and the Netherlands in that order? back and forth, and the EU’s strategy to connect Europe and Asia. Notably, these strategies are non-confrontational and focus on cooperation with like-minded regional partners such as India and Japan. They keep the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) intact. Considering these partnerships from the angle of strategic autonomy, the creation of mini-lateral regional groupings seems obvious. In particular, since the EU, India and Japan all intend to build their own unique brands and in a broader relationship with each other, by establishing an EU-India-Japan trilateral, on the heels of the Italy-India-Japan grouping, could be of immense value. But what form would this trilateral take? What are the prospects for the formation of such a trilateral apart from an architecture led by the Americans or by the Chinese? How important would the EU-India-Japan trilateral be for new global supply chains? In what areas could this trilateral cooperate in the Indian Ocean? What would be the scope of cooperation with ASEAN for this trilateral?

BILATERAL AND TRILATERAL STRATEGIC TIES —- Objectively speaking, India and Japan are strategic partners of the EU who share a special strategic and global partnership between them. These deep-rooted ties constitute a global and values-driven, trustworthy and trust-inducing grouping highly coveted in international collaborations. The establishment of such a trilateral would not only strengthen their bilateral relations – India-Japan, India-EU, EU-Japan – but would also provide a much-needed boost to broader multilateral cooperation in the region. The three powers subscribe to a multipolar world order while resolutely committing themselves to safeguarding a free and open international order based on rules. This provides the basis for a strong fundamental connection. In recent years, with Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy and later with the random withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan and the signing of AUKUS which snubbed France, the transatlantic allies began to lose confidence in the United States as the main security provider. Since then, the siren call for EU strategic autonomy has only intensified, culminating in the recent release of the Strategic Compass which seeks to expand the reach of the EU as a credible supplier global security.

CHINA’S Stubbornness — Meanwhile, even as Brussels, Tokyo and Delhi have sought to limit their economic dependence on China in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and growing security concerns, a complete decoupling from China is an unlikely proposition. Some have rightly called it a “chimera”. As of 2021, China remains one of the main trading partners of the EU, India and Japan in all sectors. Therefore, while the three share a common perception of China’s threat as a revisionist authoritarian power, they are realistic about the importance of maintaining a balance in their approaches to Beijing, contrary to Washington’s expectations. Thus, an India-Japan-EU trilateral would allow the three actors to build a non-US, non-China-led multipolar tripartite structure that would further their common interests in the region while protecting national security.

ALIGNMENT OF CORE VALUES: SEEKING A BROADER REACH —- The Three Pillars of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) and the vision of security and growth for all in the region ( SAGAR) of India are consistent with EU core values ​​and principles of democracy, rule of law, human rights and international norms and standards. This alignment enables cooperation in areas such as maritime security, resilient supply chains, energy, infrastructure and digital connectivity, ocean governance, climate action, defense and security, and a increased engagement in European regions in difficulty. Economically, the three powers face the urgency of a post-pandemic fiscal recovery. Here, building sustainable and resilient supply chains has become a key focus area. To this end, the EU could adopt the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) launched by Japan, India and Australia, notably through its Global Gateway strategy, which focuses on “boosting competitiveness and global supply chains”. The SCRI can contribute to enhancing the geo-economic ambitions of the EU in the “highly interconnected” Indo-Pacific, by advancing its strategic autonomy agenda. Likewise, the India-Japan-EU trilateral can offer connectivity alternatives, such as in Asia and the wider EU neighborhood, where China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has made significant inroads. . Opportunities in areas such as transport, digital, energy, pharmaceuticals, renewable energy and infrastructure can be created through already existing cooperation frameworks. Among them: the EU-Japan Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure, Global Gateway, Japan’s Extended Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI), India’s Act East Policy, Japan’s Balkan Cooperation Initiative Westerners and Indian Politics Look West.

EMBRACE TAIWAN, ASEAN: With regard to the Taiwan question as well, the invasion of Ukraine has raised awareness in Europe of the potential occupation of Taiwan and the existential threat to extended neighbors such as India and the Japan. Both neighbors have stepped up their engagement with Taiwan and point to the possibility of further changes, should the Chinese threat increase significantly. The trilateral could help build a global consensus on Taiwan. For example, liaising with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) which seeks to embrace Taiwan to lessen its isolation in multilateral forums where China’s influence is a deterrent. The trio’s unambiguous emphasis on the principle of ASEAN centrality is one of the most important bonding areas. The EU’s integrated approach can build on India’s and Japan’s long-standing cooperation with ASEAN states and can help build tailor-made partnerships in Southeast Asia, not only as a business partner, but also as a credible security provider. The trilateral connection will facilitate outreach to these states with their diverse national interests and identify common areas where geopolitical or strategic support is needed. Some of the priority areas include climate action, ocean governance, digital connectivity and infrastructure development. As ASEAN dialogue partners, they could also work to improve humanitarian access. In places like Myanmar, they could also help pave a political path to restoring democracy. The presence of India and Japan would also contribute to strengthening the credibility of the EU.

BEYOND ASIA: VISION FOR AFRICA AND MARITIME SECURITY —- Beyond Asia, in Africa, the trilateral can find convergence in mutually beneficial areas. The EU could help reinvigorate the platform for trade cooperation between Japan and India in the Asia-Africa region. It could also involve India and Japan, as long-standing contributors on the continent, to help implement the EU’s common vision for Africa, as presented at the sixth African Union-EU summit in February 2022. An Africa-Europe investment program of 150 billion euros was set at the time to support a common ambition for 2030. A collective effort? together with Global Gateway and Build Back Better World? will effectively challenge China’s growing African footprint. Another key area of ​​synergy is maritime security. The EU, like India and Japan, wants to build an open and rules-based regional security order while protecting maritime lines of communication (SLOC). But above all, the EU also wants to promote capacity building and improve its maritime presence via EU Member States. To achieve this, the EU will seek to conduct more joint exercises and port calls with Indo-Pacific partners, accentuating existing efforts to strengthen democratic maritime deterrence in the region.

MINILATERAL FORCE — The trilateral can also provide a basis for strengthening EU exchanges with India and Japan in the areas of security, defence, technology and trade. An important area is that of counter-piracy operations. India and Japan are already partners in the CRIMARIO (Critical Maritime Routes in the Indian Ocean) project of the EU capacity building initiative. The trilateral could rely on this partnership through the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) recently set up in the northwest Indian Ocean. The EU’s focus on the Indian Ocean as the gateway to the Indo-Pacific highlights Brussels’ attempts to protect geo-economic interests, creating room for such a trilateral connection. . In short, amid an increasing polarization of world politics due to the great power hegemonic rivalry between the United States and China, the middle and regional powers of the Indo-Pacific are increasingly moving towards minilateral formations. India and Japan are already part of several of these groupings, together via the Quad, and separately via India-Russia-China, Japan-US-EU. Nonetheless, a comprehensive integrated partnership of the two with the EU, parallel to, if not beyond, US- or China-led mechanisms, will help create a mutually beneficial arrangement that could act as a stabilizing power in the region.

“In Search of an EU-India-Japan Trilateral” — Op-Ed by Jagannath Panda — Italian Institute for International Policy Studies / ISPI.
(The Op-Ed can be downloaded here:


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