Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation held the second Track Two Observer Discussion Forum last October 7, 2021, with the topic Europe in Southeast Asia: Maritime Security Aspects. The forum’s discussion focused on European perspectives on the major maritime security issues in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia region, with an eye to better understanding the implications of the European Union’s new Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and other security moves from the E3 (the United Kingdom, France, and Germany).

The Track Two Observer Discussion Forum Series is a project organized in partnership with the Philippine Office of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung since 2020 to facilitate discussions on security and foreign policy issues with the Philippines’ growing community of researchers and analysts despite the limitations of the pandemic.

In his keynote speech, H. E. Luc Véron, Ambassador of the European Union to the Philippines, emphasized that the EU Strategy is not one of confrontation or exclusion, but is built around cooperation with partners in the region on key challenges like climate change and security. Recognizing that the links between Europe and Southeast Asia are threatened by instability in the Indo-Pacific, Europe seeks to augment its economic presence in the region with security engagements that allow it to become a regional security actor that contributes to an open and rules-based regional security architecture.

Mr. Giorgio Cuscito, member of the editorial board of Limes – Rivista Italiana di Geopolitica, focused on European security threat perceptions in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the context of US-China great power rivalry. Southeast Asia is of particular interest because of its importance to global trade because of the density of sea lanes of communication in the area and because of the region emerging as an arena in the rivalry between the US and China. Differing levels of economic dependence on China, and differing security priorities in the Indo-Pacific, also accounts for the differences in the type and level of security engagements in the region. Mr. Cuscito notes that the development of the great power rivalry between the US and China will be a significant influence in how Europe will have to act as another security actor in the region.

Mr. Georgi Engelbrecht, from the International Crisis Group, noted that the EU has consistently maintained on its position of Principled Neutrality, focusing on the need to maintain free and open maritime supply routes, security and freedom of navigation, and full compliance with international law. The EU is mainly a civilian power in the region, but is now engaging in efforts to become a security actor. Precedent programs of the EU that focus on non-traditional security concerns, like the EU Naval Force Somalia – Operation Atalanta (EUNAVFOR ATALANTA) and the EU Critical Maritime Route Wider Indian Ocean Project (CRIMARIO) provide frameworks for increased security engagements in the region. He emphasized that the differing security priorities and strategies that EU member states have in dealing with Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific would need to be harmonized, and an Intra-European consensus would have to arise for a coherent and coordinated European approach.

Dr. Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow for the Asia Pacific Program of Chatham House, discussed the new trilateral security pact between the US, the UK, and Australia, and its implications for the region. He first emphasized that the AUKUS agreement is not an alliance that implies mutual defense obligations but is more akin to a cooperation agreement for arms procurement. He also noted that while the nuclear-powered submarines gained the most press attention, more significant in the short and medium term would be Australian access to American long-range strike capabilities. In his opinion, both AUKUS and the new EU Strategy in the Indo-Pacific are responses to the changing geopolitical situation in the Indo-Pacific, with a particular focus on China. The escalating tensions provide both challenges and opportunities to Southeast Asian states who are stuck in the middle, and it remains to be seen if Southeast Asia can collectively have a seat at the table in determining arrangements for regional security.