2021 was a bumper harvest year for European naval presence in the Indo-Pacific. In that year alone, the United Kingdom carrier strike group 21 centred on the HMS Queen Elizabeth (with the Dutch frigate HNLMS Evertsen alongside), the German frigate FGS Bayern and the French nuclear-powered attack submarine FS Emeraude and Jeanne D’Arc task force traversed the region and took part in various military engagements. That said, the surge of European naval deployments in 2021 was notable not least because these happened in the context of the European Union’s announcement of its Indo-Pacific strategy that same year. Nonetheless, the deployments were scarcely conducted under the EU’s umbrella. The European navies deployed to the region were involved in a series of high-profile training exercises. These drills involved regional major and middle powers – in particular Australia, India and Japan, all of whom happen to also be major U.S. allies (except for New Delhi, a major defence partner).
Interestingly, no other Indo-Pacific countries such as those in Southeast Asia were involved in such exercises. And of course, the ostensible target audience of this series of strategic signalling through such naval muscle-flexing – China – was understandably out of the picture. This policy brief by Collin Koh (S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies) examines, from a Southeast Asian perspective, prospects and challenges facing the viability of future European naval presence in the Indo-Pacific. It argues that notwithstanding varying perceptions within Southeast Asia, the region remains generally receptive of European naval presence. Given the extant uncertainties surrounding the war in Ukraine that could cast doubts in the Indo-Pacific about the durability of this presence, this paper proposes maintaining the status quo of European powers flying their national flags while representing a general form of European naval presence in the Indo-Pacific at least for the time being.
Author: Collin Koh is Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies which is a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has research interests on naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific, focusing on Southeast Asia. Collin has published several op-eds, policy- and academic journal articles as well as chapters for edited volumes covering his research areas. He has also taught at Singapore Armed Forces professional military education and training courses. Besides research and teaching, Collin also contributes his perspectives to various local and international media outlets and participates in activities with geopolitical risks consultancies.
This paper is part of a HCSS Europe in the Indo-Pacific Hub (EIPH) paper series. The Europe in the Indo-Pacific Hub paper series is edited by Paul van Hooft.