Europe’s military presence highlights Asia’s importance

The British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth docked at Yokosuka Naval Base this week, after holding military drills with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) and other navies.

European military forces have an expanding presence in this part of the world, a recognition of the ever-larger role the Indo-Pacific has assumed in those governments’ strategic calculations and of emerging threats to regional stability. European attention is welcome but we shouldn’t have outsize expectations of the role it can play.

The HMS Queen Elizabeth, a 65,000-ton aircraft carrier and the largest surface vessel ever built in the U.K., is making its maiden voyage through the Indo-Pacific, engaging with 40 countries on its journey. Its strike group includes two destroyers, two frigates and a submarine. Prior to the port call, the strike group held a drill with MSDF forces, as well as exercises with U.S. and Dutch forces.

Earlier in the journey, in July, the vessels participated in drills with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean. A few weeks later, the U.K. ships joined the U.S.-Australia Talisman Sabre exercises, in which Japan, Canada, South Korea and New Zealand also participated, while India, Indonesia, Germany and France were observers. The U.K. will reportedly deploy two patrol vessels to the region on a permanent basis later this year.

London isn’t the only European government showing the flag in the region. A French nuclear-powered attack submarine transited the South China Sea early this year. In April, the French led exercises in the Bay of Bengal included for the first time all the “Quad” navies — Japan, Australia, India and the U.S. In May, Japanese, Australian, U.S. and French forces participated in a drill in the East China Sea, the first time France had joined such exercises.

Finally, Germany dispatched a warship last month on a six-month deployment that will include a transit of the South China Sea, the first by a German naval vessel in two decades, and which was the result of urging by Japan last year.

Those warships are here because of the inescapable significance of this region to their national interests. Governments across Europe have produced strategic documents that make that point. For example, Britain’s recently released Integrated Review of Security, Defense, Development and Foreign Policy has been called “a tilt to the Indo-Pacific,” a region that is “the crucible for many of the most pressing global challenges.” France, Germany and the Netherlands have also written Indo-Pacific strategies and the European Union is developing its own.

British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace explained that the region’s importance obliges London to work with partners “to defend democratic values, tackle shared threats and keep our nations safe.” That view was echoed by German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who noted that “important decisions on peace, security and prosperity will be made” in the Indo-Pacific region. Her colleague, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas added that “We aim to be involved and to take responsibility for maintaining the rule-based international order.”

European governments voiced growing interest in and concern about the region in June meetings with U.S. President Joe Biden. At the U.S.-EU and U.S.-NATO summits, U.S. and European leaders pledged to closely consult and cooperate on the full range of issues as they deal with China. That list includes developments in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, the situation in the East and South China Seas, and specifically mentioned — and opposed — unilateral attempts to change the status quo. They also noted the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encouraged the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.

The NATO summit was notable for highlighting that China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that need to be addressed “together as an Alliance.” The leaders warned that China presents “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security,” and they endorsed a broad-based response that would “protect critical infrastructure, strengthen resilience, maintain our technological edge and address these challenges to the rules-based international order.”

That doesn’t mean that those governments are hostile to China or see it as the enemy. They also pledged to engage in constructive dialogue with Beijing and find areas to cooperate, a view that mirrors that of Japan. They would prefer a forward-looking relationship with Beijing, one that benefits both sides. But those preferences are no substitute for a clear-eyed assessment of Chinese actions and intentions.

While we welcome that engagement, caution is in order. Europe remains a world away. If those governments decide to maintain a permanent presence, it will inevitably be small and unable to tip the balance in a crisis. If European governments want to make a truly substantive contribution to Indo-Pacific security, then they should do more to prepare for their own defense, a move that would free up resources that the U.S. could then devote to this region.

That should not diminish our readiness to engage European partners. Their presence is another sign of the centrality of this region to global affairs. Efforts, even if symbolic, are valuable and statements of support are a reminder of the larger stakes that regional crises have. Recent events in this part of the world have the potential to do far more damage than shift a few borders; they threaten the very fiber of the global order.

In this, Europe has a unique interest. The EU is a different kind of world power. Its standing and influence much depends on its support for norms and principles, and especially the rule of law. The dispatch of warships, no matter how big, doesn’t change that.

The Japan Times Editorial Board