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Ursula von der Leyen, during the 2021 State of the Union debate [European Parliament]
To actively engage on the new world stage and seek to start establishing itself as a major geopolitical player, the EU has been developing some long-term strategies, such as the Global Gateway focused on Africa, the Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and the Road 2023 in Latin America. Certainly, they partly aim to overpower Beijing’s projects in those regions.
The European Union’s new €300 billion flagship Global Gateway (GG) strategy, unveiled on December 2021, focuses on infrastructure development and connectivity with Asia and the Global South. According to the Union and based on the principles of good governance, the policy aims to mobilize investment between 2021 and 2027 to improve the quality of life in this region —especially regarding green energy, digital infrastructure, transport, education, health, and research—, allowing not only local developing communities to be benefited but also promoting the investment of European private enterprises. The UE is planning to devote up to €150 billion out of the total amount to support the project in the African continent financially. It is not merely economic factors that make African countries appealing, but also their strategic aspects. For instance, ports such as those in Djibouti along the Gulf of Aden are of great geopolitical importance as gateways to valuable trade corridors. In addition, the funding of the program not only comes from member states, but it is part of an intricate “Team Europe” package containing mixed investment from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), among others.
Moreover, even though China is already the EU’s leading trading partner, accounting for 17% of trade and supplying critical products for specific industries, some scholars seem to perceive that GG is trying to outcompete the 1 trillion China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by which Beijing seeks to control vital infrastructures on a trans-continental scale. The reason lies in the fact that the Union is increasingly concerned about China’s soft and hard power being undertaken in numerous countries right at its doorstep. The 21st century Maritime Silk Road is planning to pass through the region, directly connecting the Indo-Pacific coast with China, which will benefit countries in this area, such as Mozambique and Djibouti. Across the African continent, forty countries have signed agreements with the Asian giant, resulting in China being involved in the construction of one out of every three transportation projects and financing one out of every five in the area.
Nonetheless, the EU is differentiating itself from China’s model. Beijing heavily relies on loans and asset allegations to build highways, railroads, pipelines, and ports in emerging markets, saddling them with debts and making their economies dependent on them. For instance, East African countries borrowed about $29 billion from China for these projects. This strategy has become known as Debt Trap Diplomacy. Conversely, the European Union is using a funding model that will feature a mix of grants, soft loans, and guarantees aimed at boosting private sector investments.
Furthermore, the organization is not investing in similar projects as they do not want to strengthen its adversary’s position in the region. As stated by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, “It does not make sense for Europe to build a perfect road between a Chinese-owned copper mine and a Chinese-owned harbor.” GG’s investment package for Africa consists of two priority goals: partnership for a green transition and digital transformation. Most Sub-Saharan African countries have made enormous leaps in digital services with the widespread adoption of mobile banking. There are 146 million registered accounts and 61.9 million active accounts. In addition, Africa’s renewable energy sources, such as solar, geothermal, and wind power, are growing to combat global warming.
We must consider that Africa is still on the frontline of the consequences of climate change, despite being only responsible for about 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, these two sectors on the continent are rapidly expanding, and the Union seems to take advantage of that opportunity. While the GG is still in its early days, it already presents some significant challenges. On the one hand, the rising tensions between two of the most substantial actors inside the EU block, France and Germany. At present, both nations are keener on building their own paths rather than working in cooperation. For example, in terms of energy sources, France advocates for nuclear energy, while Germany would rather eliminate it. These discrepancies are fairly significant since Germany accounts for 24.9% and France for 24.1% of the total investment framework. In comparison, the other countries together account for only 9.1% of the funding and financing for the infrastructure project.
On the other hand, African leaders are concerned as they perceive the green agenda as a potential hindrance to their own attempt at industrializing their countries. Africa began 2021 with the inauguration of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), hoping to detach itself from its economic dependence on the outside world by integrating its markets into a single one. Besides, the general international situation complicates Team Europe’s ability to create mechanisms to scale up private sector investment to fulfill the GG budget.
Meanwhile, last October, during the inauguration speech in Bruges of the European Diplomatic Academy, EU High Representative Josep Borrell stated that Europe was a “garden” and much of the rest of the world a “jungle”. He compared the EU with a garden due to its “economic prosperity, political freedom, and social cohesion” and urged gardeners to assist in preventing an invasion from the “jungle”. Kenya's ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, replied on social media: At #COP27 we are going to have to ask the gardeners to pay for the extensive, life-destroying damage their gardening has done to the “jungle”.
Given the similar development initiatives already operational in the UE, two main viewpoints prevail inside the alliance. On one side, it is nothing more than a mere geoeconomic diplomacy policy to bring Europe back to the table of relevant global players. On the other side, the project is true to its objectives and principles, hoping to act as a bridge between the developed and developing world, contributing to international advancement, globalization, and partnership.
Replacing the previously dominant Asia-Pacific concept with the new name adopted by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), this new mega-region extends from Eastern Africa to the island states of the Pacific and East Asia, in which China and the United States are engaged in intense geopolitical competition. Therefore, in April 2021, the Council of the European Union adopted the Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, which consists of a long-term partnership to assist in diverse fields such as health, ocean governance, research, regional organizations, security and defense, technology, in conjunction with addressing issues like climate change and the COVID19 repercussions. Cooperation with the region is crucial for achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Furthermore, the Indo-Pacific produces almost 60% of the global GDP and supplies ⅔ of global growth. In addition, the zone is home to three of the four largest economies outside the EU (China, India, and Japan), being at the forefront of technological developments. Further, 60% of maritime trade passes through its oceans, including a third crossing through the South China Sea. Therefore, the EU’s engagements aim to safeguard its economic agenda, values, and interests, and to ensure free and open maritime supply routesunder international law, notably UNCLOS.
The Council particularly stresses a strong focus in regard to connectivity and digital infrastructure, global issues like the perseveration of biodiversity, and maritime security and defense. The latter has been growing through the establishment of naval presence, participation in exercises, and port calls between the region’s navy and the EU Naval Force’s Operation Atalanta against piracy, together with an involvement in the ASEAN Regional Forums. For instance, the EU navy has been fighting smugglers with the help of Korean and Japanese ships, in addition to conducting naval exercises with global powers such as India.
Additionally, on February 2022, at a Ministerial Forum in Paris, the EU declared an extension of the coordinated maritime presence, known as Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP), to the northwest of the Indian Ocean to optimize the assets that its members were deploying. Likewise, the Enhancing Security Cooperation In and With Asia (ESIWA) program came into effect to enhance cooperation with Asian partner countries in the fields of counter-terrorism, crisis management, and maritime security. At the same time, to promote awareness of the maritime domain in the region, the Indo-Pacific Regional Information Sharing (IORIS) platform of the Critical Maritime Routes in the Indo-Pacific (CRIMARIO) project became operational.
Chinese assertiveness in the region has accelerated the adoption of Indo-Pacific strategies not only by the EU, but also by the Netherlands (2020), Germany (2020), and France (2019). These countries, which have already developed their own Indo-Pacific approach, constitute a group with whom the Union will particularly deepen its engagement. Notwithstanding, analyzing these member states’ specific concerns and positions is vital.
Firstly, France has a legacy of colonialism in the region, still lingering in a handful of overseas regions and collectives worldwide. With all these territories, mainly in the Indo-Pacific (93%), they handle the world’s second-biggest exclusive economic zone, which has resulted in a solid economic and armed presence, with 1.5 million French citizens living in the economic zone and deploying around 7,000 military staff to protect their purposes. France’s scope in the Indo-Pacific is centered mainly on security issues and military presence, presenting itself as a ‘resident power’ and, at the same time, as a ‘mediating power’ in the region.
Secondly, the German paper acknowledges a broader focus on multilateralism and development concerning education, environmental issues, and infrastructure. However, Germany has increased its militarization in response to the tension created by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It has sent aircraft and military aid to Australia for joint exercises, such as Pitch Black and Kakadu. By 2024, Scholz hopes to send even more warships to the region. Nevertheless, due to the fear of China, Germany remains reluctant to send warships to the South China Sea. Moreover, one of the few genuinely new projects referred to in its guidelines is the creation of a regional information center in Singapore to counteract the spread of disinformation. Germany's influence remains minimal, non-objective driven, and highly cautious compared to other EU players.
Thirdly, the Netherlands’ core strategy is economics and trade. In 2019, the Netherlands was the largest importer of goods of the ten ASEAN countries in the EU, with a value of €300 billion. Both Germany and the Netherlands perceive this region as a political and economic center of gravity where trade depends on open sea lanes and its support for maintaining a rules-based order. They also believe security enhancement would only be possible if collaboration with other NATO members in the zone becomes feasible.
Notwithstanding, the three approaches share fundamental interests and objectives. Besides, these states attribute ASEAN a central role as a partner of the EU in the area, as the Union’s vision is close to ASEAN’s “Perspective on the Indo-Pacific” rather than the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Hence, the members identify the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) as a venue to strengthen dialogue and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Also, they all want to reinforce partnerships with each country in the region, even with China.
Equally important, ongoing dynamics in the region highlight the challenges to the QUAD and the EU proposal. China’s aggressive ambitions in the East and South China Seas are evident in the establishment of the String of Pearls, the BRI, anti-access/areal denial (A2/AD), as well as the use of salami-slicing tactics in its territorial disputes that seek shifting the status quo in the Indo-Pacific region. Nevertheless, the biggest objection to the Union’s cooperation strategy will be to assign the required financial and human resources to meet the expectations created among the region’s partners.
On top of that, the Global Gateway project is present in the Indo-Pacific through investments in small and developing nations and territories, like New Caledonia, Reunion, French Polynesia, and Wallies and Futuna. Notably, this rising influence and presence of the EU in the Indo-Pacific generates a balance of power with China, as Xi Jinping tackles the same operation since the region, geopolitically, is its own backyard.
3. Latin America
Despite the lack of a regional strategy for Latin America and the Caribbean, cooperation mechanisms exist, especially in connectivity and digitalization. As revealed by the cooperation program called “Building the Europe Link to Latin America” (BELLA) to set out in Europe’s Digital Decade targets, a submarine internet cable connects the two regions, a beacon of technological innovation and an icon for the modernization of the profoundly traditional region. All this innovation leads to the growing widespread availability of resources for everyone, an issue that dates back to the independence of all these nations from Spanish and Portuguese colonial rule.
Moreover, the Road 2023 paves the way for an EU-LAC Summit at the level of Heads of State and Government in the second half of 2023, under the Spanish Presidency of the European Council in order to strengthen peace and sustainable development. The four primary objectives of this partnership consist of 1) modernizing and completing the network of trade and association agreements already in place and supporting regional integration in Latin America; 2) cooperating on shared priorities: the green transition of our economies, digital transformation, and social cohesion; 3) intensifying political dialogue, and 4) promote peace, democracy, and human rights.
The European diplomatic and political agenda centers on bilateral economic cooperation with Latin American organizations such as Mercosur, including the countries in the South Cone (Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay) Brazil, Mexico, and Chile. Nevertheless, a specific case of a nation that enjoys outstanding relations with its European partners is Uruguay, a stable, minor, and financially prosperous liberal democracy located in the south of the continent; Uruguay is at the global forefront of green energy, generating 97% of its electricity from renewable resources. The Union and Uruguay have also cooperated under the umbrella of other regional programs such as El Pacto, COPOLAD, and SEACOP V. Therefore, Europe recognizes this state as an example for the rest of the region.
Additionally, Argentina enjoys a privileged position with the EU, focusing on human rights and multilateralism. It is the third largest economic partner of the bloc. Even so, amid the semi-closed structure of Argentina's heavily protected economic fabric, the EU presents itself as the largest foreign investor in Argentina. It is also one of the region’s most significant scientific and technological players. It works together with European nations and, in particular, with the European Space Agency on space technology and research.
The increase in bilateral relations with Latin America from Europe is a direct but subtle reaction of economic and deeper soft power against China’s growing regional influence, one of the last diplomatic and business efforts from the old decaying European power. To counterattack the more noticeable and quotidian Chinese power in the region, for instance, they concentrate on securing Panama as a strong ally because if China gets to dominate the region instead of the western bloc, it would quickly become a perfect gateway and transportation passage for the new Silk Road.
After 2008, the relationship between LA (including the Caribbean region) and the European Union had to become stronger as China consolidated its global position; therefore, as a counter-reaction, the EU block took advantage of the economic situation after the financial crisis. The same situation occurred again with the COVID-19 pandemic, posing a new opportunity for mutual help and profit.
Still, some European heads of state have clashed regarding political views and policies done by the administration of governments, such as the one of former president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, popular for its far-right ideology and conservatism. For example, France rejects Bolsonaro’s view on the exploitation of the Amazon rainforest, contradicting the political stances of some regional leaders and advocating for nature preservation and wellness. Additionally, Belgium, Ireland, and Austria support France’s stance.
Strengthening an EU-LAC bi-regional agenda is economically profitable for the bloc due to the large number of resources that the continent possesses. The Union also benefits the nascent republics with the policies implemented based on democratic values, laissez-faire capitalism, and the importance of collaboration and global engagement. However, it is crucial to point out that the economic and technological shortcomings, as well as corruption, bureaucracy, and institutional inefficiency in these countries, pose a threat to the actual implementation of these projects.
All things considered, the EU’s reliability as a powerful and relevant global actor is at stake, depending on the proper execution and the effects of the programs not only on the local communities targeted, but within Europe itself. Indeed, many consider that politicians should target the problems facing member countries at this time, with a devastating energy crisis looming, instead of focusing on helping others.