“The EU doesn’t stop at the water’s edge”: EU-India and the Indo-Pacific

John-Joseph Wilkins | 28 April 2021


This paper examines ways to enhance security cooperation between the European Union and India, with a focus on counter-piracy and cooperation through ASEAN. This piece is the revised version of the original paper produced in March 2021 for the EU India think tanks twinning initiative 2020-22. The original paper can be found here.


The EU is heavily dependent on maritime shipping: 90 percent of its external and 40 percent of internal trade is seaborne. For its part, India is also completely reliant on sea lines of communication (SLOC), with some 90 percent of trade by volume and 70 percent by value passing through the maritime space. The stability and security of the so-called Indo-Pacific are therefore of vital importance and both have sought to reinforce a common vision of regional and global maritime challenges by maintaining freedom of navigation and sea lines of communication through inclusive and rules-based global governance. What also unites these (sometimes awkward) partners are concerns over China, which has been flexing its economic and military muscles across the Indo-Pacific in recent years.

After years of being viewed solely or primarily as an economic power, it is increasingly accepted in Indian policy circles that the EU is indeed a security actor in its own right. This is particularly the case vis-à-vis maritime security issues: from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Aden, and recently with the launch of the Coordinated Maritime Presence concept in the Gulf of Guinea, the Union has steadily strengthened its footprint and role as a global security provider in its maritime areas of interest. As Indian Ambassador to the EU, Santosh Jha, explained recently: “The relationship between the EU and India cannot just stand on one leg. It will be stronger if it stands on both legs: economic and geopolitical.” Yet despite significant (relative) progress in bilateral relations in recent years and repeated pledges that the EU-India relationship is indeed ‘strategic’, systematic security cooperation has to date been somewhat underwhelming.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, noted in his personal blog last year that: ‘We live in a permanent ‘battle of narratives’ about the issues that determine our future. We have to understand these different positions if we want to look for a common ground.’ This paper proposes that combatting piracy in the broader Indo-Pacific could be an avenue for finding this ‘common ground’ and establishing the EU as a credible security player in the region. Safety at sea issues, search and rescue operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), safety at life at sea initiatives and efforts to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, as well as sustainable economic growth linked to the blue economy, cannot be effective if international rules are not adhered to. Furthermore, enhanced EU-India naval and maritime cooperation should be part of a broader commitment to multilateralism; one that will not simply aim to ‘contain’ China but bolster the agency of all relevant parties in the Indo-Pacific.

The shared importance of maritime security

Indeed, the EU has made strides in MARSEC over the last year: in June 2020, it launched CRIMARIO II, building on previous (and now extended) initiatives based in the Western Indian Ocean to secure  sea lines of communication in Southeast Asia. As part of a broader investment in its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the EU has also developed specific MARSEC capabilities. For India, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or ‘Quad’) is a useful tool for New Delhi to bolster its defence ties, showcase its military prowess and improve its growing (if sometimes erratic) relationship with the United States. While the Quad has seen a renewed commitment from its members and large-scale drills (most recently during India’s yearly Malabar naval exercises in November 2020), it should be viewed as a ‘compact bloc, rather than a sprawling multilateral organisation’, the latter being the environment within which the EU is often more comfortable operating. Indeed, ‘if the Indo-Pacific acquires an ambiguous narrative, or there are hints of a defence alliance, […], caution from the EU […] is likely expected.’ Thus, as an outside actor, the EU is best placed to cooperate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), while maintaining its established collaboration with Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and expanding its ties with India. ASEAN nations also now constituteone of India’s top foreign policy priorities; both the Act East and Neighbourhood First policies pursued by the Indian government under Prime Minister Modi are linked to ASEAN or its member states.

In 1945, Indian diplomat KM Panikkar popularised the adage ‘whoever controls the Indian Ocean has India at its mercy’. This preoccupation with maritime freedom has continued to this day, with the Indian Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, claiming recently that the Quad should be used to ensure Freedom of Navigation Operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond. While the much-touted Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ encircling India is not quite as strategic as some had feared, there is indeed cause for concern in allowing a non-democratic state to potentially dominate sea lines of communication, particularly given its disregard for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Anti-piracy provides common ground for cooperation with India (and ASEAN) without overtly challenging Beijing. Piracy still represents a significant threat and a total of 97 incidents were reported in Asia in 2020: an increase of 17 percent compared to 2019. The phenomenon is also likely to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic whereby piracy offers a potentially lucrative source of income for those who may suffer as a result of the global economic downturn and ‘ASEAN states and concerned stakeholders in the region must face the uncomfortable fact that increased crime in South-East Asian seas is inevitable.’ Counter-piracy may also be a way of circumventing India’s traditional reluctance to bind itself to formal alliances and respect its desire for strategic autonomy.  

Policy Recommendations

Ultimately, beyond shared values (though undeniably important), it is shared hard interests which will eventually underpin any common approach between the EU and India.

Suggested policy recommendations for the EU:

  • Use counter-piracy as a way into the region as a security provider. Building on past successes (and the momentum generated by the CMP programme), the Union has a wealth of experience, as well as the capacity to fully engage in the field. The EU should therefore aim to join the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combatting Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). The multilateral agreement brings together the Quad, ASEAN nations, as well as EU Member States such as the Netherlands and Denmark (Germany is set to join). It also presents a more flexible format for interested EU Member States which lack blue water capabilities. It provides a forum to engage with India (a founding member) on security matters and to be active in the region without alienating China (which is also a member). There is also precedent of agreements vis-à-vis international organisations: the Information Sharing Center of ReCAAP has signed agreements with the likes of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), for example, so why not the EU?
  • Develop a coherent strategic communications plan for the Indo-Pacific­­. The EU sometimes suffers from an asymmetry of perspectives, despite a clear common cause. Strategic communication efforts are therefore required to communicate the EU effectively to international partners. In particular, maritime domain awareness works particularly well for the EU. The lack of an Indo-Pacific strategy has hitherto sent the wrong signal about how important the region is, though that is to soon be rectified as the Union is due to release one this year. The EU needs to reflect on what narrative to build – and sustain – so as to win over sceptics in the region. This requires developing strategic communications toolkits for regional countries which also include non-traditional security matters so as to encourage Indo-Pacific nations to engage with the EU as a whole rather than individual Member States alone.
  • Shelve any plans to involve itself in the Quad – at least for the time being. Bearing in mind that the Quad is a military alliance principally concerned with national navies, the EU – for all its positive ambition – lacks the cohesion, capabilities and interest to join such a body. This will also require some delicate balancing on the European side: it must actively engage with the four partners to avoid accusations of representing a new Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). At the same time, the EU should also avoid steps that may be perceived as anti-China manoeuvres. Even within the Quad itself, alliance building is not without controversy, and joining a pre-existing defence initiative is not necessarily in Europe’s interest nor its traditional modus operandi. Instead, and in line with its commitment to multilateral solutions, the EU should seek out broader fora.
  • Engage on security with ASEAN – while not neglecting other bodies.The EU’s increasingly stronger ties with ASEAN naturally lend themselves to build further security ties. ASEAN-led processes and regional mechanisms hold promise.The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+) Expert Working Groups (particularly those pertaining to military medicine) also provide opportunities for further engagement, including with India. Accordingly, the EU should make use of the 2021 French presidency of the Indian Ocean Commission to increase its visibility, while continuing its attempt to achieve IORA observer status to tackle broader issues.

Suggested policy recommendations for India:

  • Look beyond its immediate neighbourhood and expand EU-related diplomatic corps. A permanent post to liaise with the EU Military Committee could be a possibility while more broadly, a dedicated Ambassador to the EU (rather than the current setup of one post to cover the mission to the EU, as well as the nations of Belgium and Luxembourg) could help develop deeper ties and focus. Indian policymakers could also closely monitor the interests of the rotating Presidency of the EU Council: for instance, the official agenda of the current Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU (running until the end of June 2021) reveals a specific interest in the maritime domain and the outermost regions of the Union, including those in the Indo-Pacific.


John-Joseph Wilkins is a Senior Associate and Senior Operations Manager at The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy. His research focuses on the South Asia research portfolio, with a focus on security and defence-related matters in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of The Azure Forum.