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This Policy Brief seeks to explore how key partners in the Indo-Pacific have perceived and responded to recent North American and European efforts in the region.
Much has been written about the enhanced Indo-Pacific strategies of the US, Canada and their European partners, as they have fleshed out their respective approaches in a series of important policy documents. But there has been far less research on how governments in the Indo-Pacific view the rhetorical and real-word implications of intensified Western engagement. As part of an ongoing RUSI–Chatham House project on transatlantic cooperation, this Policy Brief seeks to explore how key partners in the Indo-Pacific have perceived and responded to recent North American and European efforts in the region. To what extent do Indo-Pacific countries view these as part of a concerted transatlantic or Western approach, and how would such an approach accord with their interests?
Rather than offering a comprehensive study of such a large region, this brief focuses on the perspectives of a selection of Indo-Pacific states that transatlantic governments have identified as priority partners in shaping the future regional order. This includes an inner ring of US allies that have most openly embraced the renewed transatlantic interest in the region, and tougher stances toward China: Japan; Australia; and South Korea. It also includes an outer ring of mostly non-aligned partners that have been more circumspect, welcoming enhanced diplomatic engagement, but raising concerns about the long-term commitment of the transatlantic powers, and the risk that more robust China policies could inflame tensions with Beijing, rather than bringing balance to the region. This group includes India, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines.
These groups are not, of course, uniform in their attitudes, which tend to differ across different issues, as is to be expected when dealing with broad geographical spaces such as the Indo-Pacific and transatlantic regions.
This Policy Brief draws on interviews with senior government officials and experts, as well as a review of open-source data on national security priorities. Interviews took place in Hanoi, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, London, New York City, Singapore, Washington, DC and other locations between October 2022 and August 2023. The brief does not consider China’s approach to the Indo-Pacific strategies of transatlantic partners in the brief, because these strategies are broadly targeted at China, rather than considering China a partner in the execution of transatlantic policy.
The Inner Ring: Australia, Japan and South Korea
The US’s closest regional allies – Japan, Australia and South Korea – have been the strongest supporters of intensified regional engagement from transatlantic partners, actively seeking to encourage and shape their involvement, across security, economics, technology and other contested domains. While there are differences of tone and emphasis, this crucial trio broadly shares the analytical framework through which the US and Europe see the Indo-Pacific. Further, the transatlantic partners and this trio share some overarching regional objectives, such as: balancing China’s rising power and assertiveness; pursuing economic de-risking vis-à-vis China; and providing developing economies in Asia with diplomatic and economic options that can boost their resilience. Over the past couple of years, officials from these three countries have expanded and deepened their conversations with North American and European counterparts as they explore areas in which they can learn from one another and, ultimately, better coordinate policies where there are substantial areas of overlap.
Japan and Australia are most closely aligned with the US and Europe. Tokyo and Canberra share transatlantic concerns about the rise of China and its increasing assertiveness: from Beijing’s defence modernisation and deployment of military capabilities to its use of economic coercion, disinformation and other tools of interference beneath the threshold of armed conflict, and its ambition to reshape the international order. New South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has brought his country closer to the positions of Australia and Japan, with his government publishing its own Indo-Pacific strategy in December 2022, and distancing itself from the concerns of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in. But the Yoon administration’s National Security Strategy, published in June 2023, frames the challenge as being the ‘intensification of US–China strategic competition’, in contrast to how Japan, Australia and transatlantic partners frame China itself as the chief challenge. The concluding statement of the Camp David trilateral summit between the leaders of the US, Japan and South Korea in August 2023 was markedly more restrained in its discussion of China than the final communiqué of the May 2023 summit of the G7, which includes Japan and key transatlantic governments, but not South Korea.
While officials and policy experts interviewed from Australia, Japan and South Korea generally did not view their partnerships with the US and Europe through an explicitly transatlantic lens, they universally welcomed increased efforts to discuss shared objectives and work towards better policy coordination in the region. This is happening across a range of overlapping platforms and issues, mirroring the complex arrangements through which the US and Europe are trying to better work together in the region. This reflects US efforts to build a ‘latticework’ of alliances and partnerships that are ‘more flexible, ad hoc, more political than legal, sometimes more temporary than permanent’.
On economics, the US, Europe and Japan are seeking to build a common approach and manage competitive differences over industrial policy through the G7. Neither Australia nor South Korea is a G7 member but, under the rubric of ‘G7+’, they were both invited to the Hiroshima summit in May 2023, alongside the leaders of Brazil, Comoros, Cook Islands, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Outside of summits, European and North American officials are also engaging with their Australian, Japanese and South Korean counterparts in much more frequent discussions and dialogues about the economic and technological challenges presented by China, and how to ensure development assistance and infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific is more effective.
On traditional security, Japan, Australia and South Korea are increasing their engagement with NATO, participating in a NATO summit for the first time in June 2022, and again in 2023. It should be acknowledged, however, that this is in part a response to the war in Ukraine, as well as being a result of transatlantic engagement in the Indo-Pacific. In a show of less-than-perfect transatlantic cooperation, the proposal for a regional liaison office in Tokyo that might have supported a coordinated response to shared security challenges was opposed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Ben Wallace, the then British defence secretary, seemed to support the proposal in comments made in Singapore in June 2023 but, in a subsequent interview, he expressed understanding for the French position and concern about NATO ‘mission creep’ to the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, the bilateral ‘tailored partnership programmes’ that Japan and South Korea signed with NATO in 2023 suggest there is agreement across the Alliance on the rising importance of Asian partnerships.
While there is no intention to build a comprehensive, synthesised approach to the Indo-Pacific, Australia, Japan and South Korea are all looking to push their cooperation with North America and Europe to a new level through a web of overlapping platforms and priorities anchored in the US alliance system. Japan, Australia and the US are seeking to coordinate their security and economic cooperation with one another and India through the ‘Quad’. Australia, the UK and the US are deepening their military-to-military and military–industrial engagement through AUKUS. And, despite the historical tribulations of Japan–South Korea relations, both governments have pledged to strengthen trilateral cooperation with the US across traditional security, economic security and other regional issues.
Challenges in the Outer Ring: India, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines
Beyond the core trio, five other important states in the Indo-Pacific – India, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines – have taken a more selective and transactional approach to enhanced transatlantic engagement in the region. This reflects the fact that, aside from the Philippines, none of these states is a formal military ally of the US, and all have distinctive traditions of foreign policy independence. Aside from Singapore, they are developing economies with leaderships that are under pressure to deliver growth and jobs. According to the sources interviewed for this brief, these five countries want the US and its transatlantic allies to help maintain a stable balance of power in the region, but they also fear that the intensity of Washington’s competition with China could be a destabilising force.
Transatlantic partners’ economic engagement looks particularly disjointed to those in this circle. Unwilling for domestic political reasons to offer market access, the US is pursuing instead a vague Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). The five countries discussed here are all participating in early IPEF negotiations, but regional officials say it is too early to tell whether these talks can deliver an economic benefit. 1 The UK is seeking bilateral trade deals, and has acceded to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam, but not the US, which pulled out of a predecessor agreement in 2017, or the EU. Meanwhile, the EU’s Global Gateway and the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment remain nascent initiatives, with regional officials sceptical about their ability to deliver tangible, rapid benefits. 2
One further key challenge is the Indo-Pacific concept itself. Although many advocates of the Indo-Pacific framing see it as a way to embrace a bigger regional role for India, India’s own view of the Indo-Pacific does not tally neatly with those of the US and Europe. The reinvigorated Quad is often painted as a balancing coalition against China, but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stipulated that India ‘does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country’. India’s own initiatives for the region, such as the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and the Indian Ocean vision of ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’, are framed in inclusive terms, as is ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. Nevertheless, there is growing consensus in India about the need for a tougher approach to Beijing, in the aftermath of the flare-up of tensions along its border with China.
India has also stepped up its engagement with specific transatlantic countries, including the US, the UK and France. However, India’s maintenance of its historical relationship with Russia, despite the invasion of Ukraine, is a reminder that – as is the case within the transatlantic community – not all Indo-Pacific countries will accept Manichean framings of the region as an arena for a battle of democracies versus autocracies.
There is yet more divergence when it comes to Southeast Asia. Officials and policy experts in that region welcome many aspects of Western plans for the Indo-Pacific, but have concerns that the hardening US approach to China, in particular, may antagonise rather than deter Beijing, and that new frameworks and institutions such as the Quad may bypass or undermine the region’s existing ASEAN-anchored architecture. ASEAN member states are concerned with maintaining ‘ASEAN centrality’ in countries’ approaches to the Indo-Pacific, noting that this is the ‘underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the … region’. In other words, they would prefer that ASEAN institutions and platforms are the vehicles through which partners implement their Indo-Pacific strategies.
New Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who took office in June 2022, has shed the anti-American approach of his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, and is intensifying security cooperation with Washington as China increases the pressure on the Philippines in disputed parts of the South China Sea. But other governments in this outer ring remain concerned that the US and its transatlantic allies are too heavily focused on competing with, if not containing, China. Key officials and policy experts in Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam fear that the US and European governments could unnecessarily antagonise Beijing, prompting an escalatory spiral that will cost their region much more than it will the Euro-Atlantic. 3 Numerous Southeast Asian officials indicated that Western government narratives that criticised China’s infrastructure investments and framed competition with Beijing as that between democracy and autocracy had fallen flat. 4 However, it should be noted that this has not caused Singapore and Vietnam to hesitate in improving their military ties with the US.
Many officials and policy experts expressed a dual fear that the US might abandon the region if US politics turns further inward, and also that it might become too aggressive toward China, which could trigger a potentially devastating conflict in the Indo-Pacific. 5 These perceptions about likely trajectories in US policy also colour expectations among regional partners about what Europe will do, due to the widely held belief that European policy toward the Indo-Pacific largely tracks that of its premier security guarantor, the US.
In communicating their various Indo-Pacific approaches, the US and European governments have tended to stress like-mindedness as a basis for working with a broad array of regional partners, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. Yet those governments have diverse views on the Indo-Pacific, and do not view their engagement in the region through a ‘transatlantic’ lens.
Although the US and Europe have put economic security, shared prosperity and resilient supply chains at the heart of their various Indo-Pacific strategies and documents, regional partners expressed concern about the brewing discord between the US and its allies over landmark economic and technological policies. The UK and the EU have warned that the US Inflation Reduction Act, which offers billions of dollars in green subsidies to US companies, could curb competition. Japan and South Korea share these concerns. While the US and the EU have set up a Trade and Technology Council to promote shared rules and norms in this vital emerging domain, they are also pursuing different approaches to the regulation and promotion of the technology sector. Further, recent trips to Beijing by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Council President Charles Michel and French President Macron have stirred US fears that its European allies might be softening their approach to China, in the hope of avoiding costly decoupling, and of maintaining or even expanding economic benefits as the Chinese economy comes back to life after Beijing’s abandonment of its zero-Covid strategy.
Unsurprisingly, countries in the Indo-Pacific do not view the Euro-Atlantic region as an integrated monolithic actor and, according to interviewees, the term ‘transatlantic’ generally holds little meaning across the Indo-Pacific. 6 While the slew of recently published Indo-Pacific strategies and documents has raised awareness of the diplomatic energy that European and North Atlantic countries are directing toward the Indo-Pacific, countries in the region draw different conclusions on how best to work with transatlantic partners.
Australia, Japan and South Korea form a core of partners that are truly like-minded from a transatlantic point of view on many, although not all, issues. Beyond these core partners, degrees of like-mindedness are more limited. Vietnam and India share US and European concerns about China’s growing military might, and want transatlantic partners to help provide a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. However, their divergent views on the war in Ukraine or on Russia’s role are not only a product of dependence on Moscow for military hardware and technology. In the case of India – but perhaps also more widely – this also reflects a welcoming of the opportunities that multipolarity offers for realising greater strategic autonomy.
US and European officials need to get better at accepting and navigating these complexities, rather than wishing them away. Just as they will need to engage with governments in the Indo-Pacific as partners in their own right and not simply as participants in a US–China struggle, they will also need their Indo-Pacific partners to be much more honest with them about their qualms and differences in opinion and national interest. While these conversations might not be easy, transatlantic partners can help by better coordinating their engagement with key Indo-Pacific partners, at diplomatic posts in the region as well as in national capitals. US and European diplomats are already coordinating on an ad hoc basis across the Indo-Pacific, but they can and should be better joined up with discussions at headquarters.
From the perspective of Indo-Pacific partners, relationships with the US and Europe will be shaped to a great extent by the trajectory of China’s relationships with them and with the West. The core group of US allies in the region – Australia, Japan and South Korea – are largely comfortable with tougher US and European policy toward China, although there are concerns about the harder-edged rhetoric coming out of the US Congress. Across the rest of the region, there is much more ambivalence.
There are, ultimately, two overarching challenges. First, the US and Europe will need to find the right balance between enhancing security relationships with allies and their closest partners, and helping other regional countries to tackle the economic and non-traditional security issues that they face. Second, while transatlantic states are not seen as a monolithic actor in the region, they can improve their reputations, and the effectiveness of their engagement, if they better coordinate their efforts in the Indo-Pacific, and avoid duplicating them. This will require more candid conversations between transatlantic countries and Indo-Pacific countries. The US and Europe will need to listen more and encourage Indo-Pacific partners to speak up honestly, to ensure that their various Indo-Pacific strategies and approaches can be refined and adjusted as they are implemented.
This project is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Director, Asia-Pacific programme, Chatham House
External Author | Former RUSI Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific
Dr Philip Shetler-Jones
Senior Research Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security