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Op ed: Europe Must Make a Realistic Commitment to the Indo-Pacific

Op ed: Europe Must Make a Realistic Commitment to the Indo-Pacific

Sending a handful of naval ships to visit every two years will not help countries in the Indo-Pacific. European nations should help reduce their economic dependence on China instead, I wrote in an op ed for The Diplomat.

On June 6, the Dutch Ministry of Defense published a statement claiming that the naval ship HNLMS Tromp had been harassed by Chinese fighter jets and a helicopter in the East China Sea. The incident in international airspace “created a potentially unsafe situation,” the ministry said.

The Dutch air defense frigate was in that particular area, the ministry said, to support an international mission monitoring the enforcement of United Nations sanctions against North Korea. It was part of a longer voyage, under the name Pacific Archer ‘24, which previously took the Tromp through the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.


The Dutch government announced in 2022 that it would be sending a naval ship to the Indo-Pacific every two years to demonstrate its willingness to defend shared values ??and interests with partner countries in the region.

With the mission the Netherlands wants to show partner countries in the Indo-Pacific that it is committed to the region, Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said when she attended a port call by the Tromp in Busan, South Korea, on June 3. “The security of the Indo-Pacific and Europe are closely linked. The waters of the Indo-Pacific are the world’s trade arteries. Safety and free passage in this region are therefore of global importance,” Ollongren said. “The Tromp’s presence here symbolizes the Netherlands’ commitment to the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific.”


Elephant in the room

The minister did not mention the elephant in the room by name, but her words and the ship’s route leave no doubt that the mission is sending a signal to China. 

Of course the Tromp’s visit didn’t go unnoticed by the Chinese. The ship has been shadowed – just as the Netherlands would shadow naval ships from non-NATO countries if they were to pass through the North Sea.


After the press release was published by the Dutch side, the Chinese Ministry of Defense felt called upon to comment too. The predictable response stated that the presence of the Dutch naval ship does not reduce but rather increases tensions in the region, and that the friendly bilateral relationship will be undermined if Chinese airspace and waters are violated. The Chinese ministry also mentioned, but didn’t elaborate on, “act of infringement and provocation” by the Tromp east of Shanghai.

We will probably never know exactly what happened, but the crux of the issue is that the Dutch naval ship entered waters where China believes countries from the other side of the world have no business. China is trying to expand its maritime jurisdiction, in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, by demanding that foreign naval vessels not enter its Exclusive Economic Zone without permission, declaring territorial waters around man-made islands and the Taiwan Strait as internal waters.


The Tromp is not the only European visitor this year. The German frigate Baden-Württemberg and the supply ship Frankfurt am Main are currently en route to the Indo-Pacific. The Italian aircraft carrier Cavour and its carrier strike group has also set sail for the region, accompanied by a French and a Spanish naval ship. And a frigate from NATO member Turkey is also currently in the region.

All those countries have every right to send naval vessels to the Indo-Pacific, as long as they sail in international waters. The question is whether it is also a wise thing to do – not because China might object, but for reasons of self interest.



One might question the argument that major transportation routes in the Indo-Pacific require the presence of European naval vessels. There are more important routes, closer to home, where shipping traffic is currently in real danger, such as the Red Sea. China on the other hand does not restrict commercial shipping traffic, even in the waters where it claims control. In fact, China has just as much interest in undisturbed shipping traffic as the West.

European navies have reduced capacity after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, challenges close to home are increasing. It has become clear that vital infrastructure at sea, such as wind farms, energy transport pipelines and data cables, are vulnerable and require protection even in peacetime. Due to the threat from Russia, NATO exercises are being conducted more often and on a larger scale. A country like the Netherlands barely has the capacity to send a ship to the other side of the world for six months every two years.


Also the deployments to the Indo-Pacific add a dimension to Chinese-European relations that is currently absent. China does not pose a military threat to the EU, and vice versa. But this relationship changes if European countries are regularly sending a military presence to Asia, especially if this happens in collaboration with the United States. It confirms the Chinese view – rightly or wrongly – that European countries serve the U.S. geopolitical agenda and do not make decisions independently. Beijing is increasingly convinced that EU states do not want to play a moderating role in the emerging major country rivalry between the United States and China.

And what exactly are Europeans promising partner countries in the Indo-Pacific? Countries in the region may already doubt whether the Americans will keep their security promises when push comes to shove, despite their formidable capabilities and permanent presence. Few capitals have pinned their hopes on Europe coming to the rescue when things get tense.


Civil policy

European countries would do well to focus their military priorities on their own territory and the nearby region and thus make themselves less dependent on the United States’ security umbrella. If the U.S. views China as its biggest threat, European countries taking greater responsibility for their own defense will help Washington focus on the Indo-Pacific.

That doesn’t mean Europeans should turn our backs on the Indo-Pacific. After all, peace and security are also in European interests. But it would be more realistic to develop a civil policy for this. More trade and investment agreements would allow regional countries to diversify their economies and become less dependent on trade with and capital from China. European governments could also support Indo-Pacific partners by training diplomats, supplying coast guard equipment and training, and strengthening scientific cooperation and student exchange. 

These are concrete measures that will benefit countries in the Indo-Pacific more than a naval ship that comes to say hello once every two years.




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dinsdag 25 juni 2024

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China-deskundige Fred Sengers publiceert op over het nieuws en de belangrijkste ontwikkelingen uit en over China op politiek, economisch en cultureel gebied. 

Hij publiceert en spreekt over China in de media, geeft gastcolleges op hogescholen en universiteiten en is tevens dagvoorzitter en spreker op congressen en seminars. Staat desgevraagd weleens organisaties die met China hebben te maken met raad en daad bij.

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