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Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific: Building an EU-India Partnership for ASEAN Engagement

Published onFeb 09, 2023
Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific: Building an EU-India Partnership for ASEAN Engagement

The EU-India effective engagement in the field of maritime security1

The Indo-Pacific region is currently the centre of gravity of great power competition with various challenges and security threats emanating from this primary theatre of major geopolitical and geoeconomic shifts.2 Stability in the region is gradually being challenged by the growing systemic competition between the USA and China, but also by the increasing tensions between the two Asian giants, China and India. In addition, the general security situation in the Indo-Pacific – which the EU interprets as the area spanning from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific Island states3 – is shaped by maritime and land disputes as well as international and domestic crises.4 From the EU’s security perspective, the Indo-Pacific maritime security domain is of growing importance in geopolitical and geoeconomic terms.5 The priority given by the EU to maritime security stems from the fact that 90% of trade between Europe and East Asia passes through the Indian Ocean sea lanes.6 Around 30% of trade between Asia and Europe passes through the South China Sea.7 The Indo-Pacific maritime axis is thus “Europe’s highway into the 21st century.”8 The following piece examines EU-India maritime security cooperation in terms of potential synergies in the field of connectivity in their relations with ASEAN.

The limits of the EU's engagement in maritime security in the Indian Ocean are of an operational, geographical, and geopolitical nature.9 In this respect, India occupies a central place in the EU's approach to the region. Both underline the importance of free and open maritime routes, underpinned by international maritime law, and reinforced by capacity building. While the EU's priorities are mainly limited to the Western Indian Ocean and east coast of Africa, India offers a broader range of maritime projects in the Indo-Pacific that could expand the focus of EU initiatives.

A key incentive for EU-India cooperation is the fact that major global chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca connecting the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb as a strategic link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, as well as the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf are crucial for energy supplies and trade flows for both actors. The EU and India also share a long-term interest in maintaining the security of transport routes and promoting free and open navigation through the Indian Ocean. Given China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), New Delhi is aware of the need to enhance its outreach in key maritime trade and connectivity regions in the Asia-Africa Corridor.10 In addition, the EU initiated the concept of a coordinated maritime presence in 201911, which is a mechanism for coordinating maritime operations between member states in key geographical areas. This is one way in which the EU can maintain various multilateral and bilateral formats of maritime security cooperation with India, but also use them as avenues for cooperation with third actors. The EU extended the implementation of the Coordinated Maritime Presences (CMP) concept in the case of the Gulf of Guinea for two years and launched CMP concept in the North-Western Indian Ocean, “covering the maritime area from the Strait of Hormuz to the Southern Tropic and from the North of the Red Sea towards the centre of the Indian Ocean”.12 There is already a coordination cell in Brussels that collects and exchanges information with coastal states, including India.

The EU Maritime Security Actions in ASEAN

ASEAN is one of the EU's most important strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific region. Their relationship was upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2020 and later marked the 45th anniversary of their bilateral relations.13 In the maritime domain, EU-ASEAN cooperation focuses mainly on transnational maritime security threats and the impact of pollution and climate change. Among the joint priorities, hard security issues occupy a central position, including maritime security, cyber security, and the fight against terrorism.14 The goal of the EU is to manage the resources of the ocean in a sustainable way and protect biodiversity, in line with international laws. This is one of the seven key focus areas within its Indo-Pacific strategy which was adopted in April 2021.15

Figure 1 The Four Principles of the EU Maritime Security16

The EU aims to establish an open and free navigation in the Indo-Pacific, including secure shipping routes, developing the maritime capabilities of EU Member States and increasing their naval presence in the region. Brussels intends to increase the number of joint exercises and port visits with the Indo-Pacific partners, including multilateral activities, to combat piracy and ensure the freedom of navigation. The EU also plans to hold more discussions with partners on security and defense, including counter-terrorism and cybersecurity. It will also aid Indo-Pacific partners in maintaining maritime security and help in building the capacity of partners to combat cybercrime.17

The EU is a founding member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)18 which aims to promote dialogue and consultation rounds through confidence-building measures (CBMs) and preventive diplomacy (PD) as well as mediation skills. The EU co-chaired the 2018-2021 intersessional meetings on maritime security with Vietnam and Australia to enhance cooperation among maritime law enforcement agencies in implementing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other legal instruments.19 The centrality of UNCLOS in addressing maritime challenges is of key importance to ASEAN. In this context, the EU and India could further deepen cooperation between maritime law enforcement authorities with and within ASEAN and promote the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea. The EU supports the Hague ruling upholding the Philippines' claim to the Spratly Islands and stands with India in opposing China's unilateral actions in the region.20 A code of conduct based on a shared vision and concept for the Indo-Pacific could be seen as a long-term goal in this domain. A scenario in which a single state infringes free navigation in the South China Sea by restricting the passage of ships should be vehemently opposed by the EU and India in cooperation with ASEAN.

Another appropriate format is the ASEAN-EU High-Level Dialogue on Maritime Security Cooperation.21 This is a useful platform for the regular exchange of views, best practices, and know-how on maritime safety. In addition, EU-India cooperation under CRIMARIO I and II addresses the issue of critical sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia in regular contact with countries such as India, Brunei, the Maldives, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.22

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA),23 based on information sharing and connectivity, appears to be of immense importance as it enables the EU and India to identify maritime security threats and develop strategies to respond to them in real time. In this context, France stationed a liaison officer at India's Information Fusion Centre in Gurugram.24 The Second India-EU Maritime Security Dialogue in 2022 emphasised intensifying cooperation in areas such as "maritime domain awareness, capacity building and joint naval activities" following the successful joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Aden in June 2021.”25 In terms of connectivity, the EU seeks to capitalise on its strengths as an “economic and development superpower” and overcome its weaknesses, such as “security-blind and short-sighted investment practices.”26 Brussels could facilitate the improvement of India's MDA for the entire Indo-Pacific region by encouraging the progress of required technical know-how while making itself an attractive partner for ASEAN.

The EU also stepped up its activities under the Enhancing Security Cooperation in and with Asia (ESIWA) programme,27 which covers maritime security, cyber security, counterterrorism, and crisis management. Hereby the EU cooperates with India, but also with Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Indo-Pacific partners are invited to contribute to Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations, while EU military experts are stationed in Indonesia and Vietnam. So far, several framework agreements on participation have been concluded with Australia, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam.

Furthermore, the EU's security initiatives are predominantly based in the Western Indian Ocean and are best known through EUNAVFOR's Operation Atalanta28 and EUCAP Somalia.29 Atalanta is a key example of the EU's inclusive approach to maritime security, which is a guiding principle for the EU's efforts in the ARF region.30 The EU has already conducted joint naval activities with India in this regard. In addition, India and the EU can cooperate in capacity building and maritime training programs for ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Moreover, the EU can become part of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA)31 and together with India explore the pillar of marine ecology within the maritime security domain. France, a member of IORA, could build on synergies with India along with ASEAN countries, e.g., Indonesia, to carve out actionable policy initiatives for dealing with issues such as the dumping of plastic debris in the Indian Ocean, as well as the protection and preservation of marine resources. France also chaired the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS)32 in 2021.

A final important synergy relates to port security and maritime safety in eastern and southern Africa and the Indian Ocean, with the prospect of expansion to ASEAN. Having initiated the Global Gateway,33 which is essentially an infrastructure and connectivity project competing with China’s Belt and Road Initiative,34 the EU can focus particularly on the potential investments in port development in India, especially key ports that are being upgraded under India's Sagar initiative35 and thus have direct links to ports in ASEAN. The launch of the Global Gateway sets the stage for EU members to identify synergies based on the shared vision of the EU and India and the similar geopolitical framework of maritime security cooperation in the IOR.

Figure 2 Main EU Maritime Security Actions36

Recommendations for the Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific: Building an EU-India Partnership for ASEAN Engagement:

An update of the EU Maritime Security Strategy could enable the protection of flows and resources in EU’s specific areas of interest by implementing a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to maritime governance, increasing maritime situational awareness and information exchange among countries and sectors involved in maritime surveillance in the Indo-Pacific region. Furthermore, it could aim to enhance the ability to detect and respond to hybrid threats and cyberattacks in the maritime domain, develop and share coherent and ambitious capabilities, as well as implement more flexible maritime security operations involving India and ASEAN.37 Following key recommendation could be proposed:

  1. The EU should play a more active role as a security provider by strengthening its regulatory contribution as a norm-setter and supporter of multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific region. Both European institutions and member states should actively promote and sustain the regional rules-based order, for example through capacity building in key areas such as the international law of the sea and dispute settlement.38 Consequently, the EU and India could work towards establishing maritime governance mechanisms that can strengthen and promote adherence to a rules-based order in Southeast Asia.

  2. The EU should work together with India to strengthen ASEAN's role as a corner stone of the multilateral architecture in the Indo-Pacific and advance the shared political vision of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. European Member States should work with India and ASEAN countries through various minilateral platforms to promote a functioning security cooperation based on the opportunities for connectivity synergies arising from the overlapping EU, Indian, and ASEAN approaches to the Indo-Pacific.

  3. The EU should encourage greater participation of Indo-Pacific partners in CSDP missions and operations and support Indo-Pacific partners' efforts to develop their own peacekeeping capabilities. The EU should put together targeted funding to facilitate India's participation in tailored naval exercises with the possibility to invite ASEAN countries. A joint project between India and the EU for cooperation in defence industry and the naval shipyards could be launched.39 The EU and India could consider involving third partners from ASEAN to engage in trilateral or multilateral naval exercises to demonstrate commonality of purpose and interoperability between like-minded partners in the future.


Stability in the Indo-Pacific region is closely linked to European security. Active engagement and growing investment in maritime security in the Indo-Pacific is necessary to ensure the security of supply chains and enable free flows of trade, energy, and services within these regional networks. This requires the intensification of national efforts by the member states to geostrategically recalibrate their common interests, objectives, and policies in the Indo-Pacific region. The EU and its member states should not be side-lined in the Indo-Pacific security debate but should actively engage in the process of diversifying their partnerships in the region by taking advantage of India's intensified relationship with ASEAN. The strategic triad of effective law of the sea enforcement combined with enhanced maritime capacity building and joint maritime governance should be promoted through closer EU-India coordination towards ASEAN.

In conclusion, the EU and India will benefit from a strategic reassessment of their common interests, objectives, and priorities with a view to deepening their mutual relations with ASEAN in the field of maritime security. They could develop a coherent narrative for concrete joint action based on a long-term vision of engagement through “a third way,” taking “their own side” in the ongoing processes and developments rather than being caught in a systemic competition between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific. Without a solid, stable, and effective EU-India partnership that aims to engage with ASEAN on maritime security, it will be increasingly difficult to shape the global affairs in the future.

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