The three great shifts and why Europe should be more engaged in Asian security issues.

Three historic shifts are transforming the global security environment. There is an economic shift of wealth generation and finance from West to East, the climate shift to higher temperatures and sea levels, and a geopolitical shift to a multi-polar world order. All of them will bring about changes that cause Europe and Asia’s security interests to overlap to an extent not seen since the onset of the Cold War period.

First the economic shift: Asia is fast becoming the most important part of the world for Europe’s economic interest. In a recent round-table hosted by FRIDE and the EU-Asia Centre, the European Union External Action Service’s (EEAS) Director for Northeast Asia,Gerhard Sabathil, pointed out that the EU’s trade with East Asia (28%) now exceeds transatlantic trade (23%).  If Asia has a security sneeze, Europe will catch a cold in its export trade with big knock-on effects for the rest of its economy. Then there is the importance of Asian finance power for our public and private debt and investment. But this economic shift is only the most obvious reason we should be more attentive to what happens ‘over there’.

Climate change is causing a geo-political shift, which will also increase the area of overlap between Europe’s and Asia’s security interests. Europe-Asian security interests have historically been mediated by two geographic zones: the Indian Ocean and the Eurasian landmass, but the shift in global temperatures causing the Arctic ice to melt makes the Arctic a third zone of economic and security interaction with Asia. It offers a shorter (thus cheaper) route, and it will divert some of our trade to the high north, creating a completely new zone for European security interests, connecting directly with Asia. The high north will be more than just a zone of transit; it is also estimated to contain vast natural resources. No one is sure how easy it will be to reach agreement on rights to explore and exploit the natural resources of that zone. Any frictions resulting from this will also tend to draw European and Asian security concerns closer together until they overlap in a third and largely un-governed geographical zone. This helps explain why China, which has had ad hoc observer status on the Arctic Council, has, like the EU, Japan, ROK and Singapore, applied to upgrade to permanent observer status.

The third shift is to a multi-polar world order. This will force Europe to adapt its employment of the grand strategy method that has served it so well: the good old ‘balance of power’. What I mean by ‘balance of power’ here is the trick of joining forces to contain or deter the bigger threat. It is an approach that has served Europe well over the years. It gave us almost 100 years peace from 1815. Under the post-WWII bi-polar order, siding with USA against the USSR turned out OK too. You didn’t have to be an instinctive Atlanticist to accept the logic of ‘our enemy’s enemy is our friend’. During the recent ‘unipolar moment’, a balance of power approach to security took a holiday, but what happens to it now we are entering a multi-polar order? I suspect it will prompt Europe to get more involved with Asia, and perhaps vice-versa.


Because the demise of the unipolar moment and the rise of the ‘rest’ means that Europe has  to look a bit beyond the Atlantic alliance to meet its security needs. I don’t mean to disparage the Atlantic security institutions – NATO has unique and valuable qualities. But America’s ‘pivot’ to the Asia-Pacific shows the USA is thinking the same thing. America does not expect NATO to serve all its security needs, so why should Europe? The end of the global ideological threat from Russia, the relative decline in US power combined with the decline in Europe’s value as a security partner to the US means that the model designed to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down is not (yet?) configured to meet all our interests given the emerging situation. Those enemies are no more. Europe’s interests are different, but also more wide-spread (see the economic statistics above).

For many in the recently enlarged European community, Russia remains the only real concern in terms of conventional threats. Should we continue to rely on American protection as usual? No, for two reasons. First, America is tightening its belt. Anyway, since the Cold War, its security concerns have been more in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific. From this point of view, Europe is perhaps more useful for its geographical position than its current ability to project fighting power or other forms of influence into the closer of the two regions. But the other reason is this: Europe has more possibilities to find help elsewhere – either from within a more united Europe, or from a wider range of potential partners and allies – and this is where we need to think about adapting the balance of power approach to a multi-polar world.

Consider two ‘balance of power’ related principles; an old two-dimensional one for the bipolar world order, and a new more positive one for the 3D geometry of the new multi-polar order. The old one that is still valid for Europe-Asia security relations is ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. This takes us back to the geo-strategic logic that brought about the Anglo-Japan alliance over a century ago. Britain – stretched by the Boer War – made an Asian ally to outflank Russia. This had double advantage of opening a new front against Russia in the Far East, so drawing resources away from the approaches to India, and at the same time freeing up British naval power to enable a concentration of force in the Mediterranean and the Baltic sea. From Japan’s defeat of the Russian navy in 1905 through the Siberian intervention in 1918 (where Japan sent 70,000 troops against the Bolsheviks), and later through the US-Japan security agreements, Europe enjoyed the advantage of a balancing force against the Russia/USSR rear. The fact that Europe and Russia and Japan and China remain in the same place as they were a century ago means that this geo-strategic logic is as relevant to day as it was then. The difference now is that the multi-polar order offers Europe more choices in its Asian allies, from Japan to China to Vietnam to …. well, the field is open. This wider choice of security-capable partners, combined with the demise of ideological differences enables a more varied geometry of alliance or partnership relationships between Europe and Asian nations. Still worried about Russia? There is China and Japan again at its rear. If China is your problem, Vietnam, Myanmar and Japan offer similar advantages.

The more positive formulation of ‘balance of power’ to this multi-polar world could be expressed as follows: ‘the enemy of my friend’s enemy is my friend‘. This entails thinking about security not just in terms of neutralizing threats to you, but of realizing strategic opportunities that may come out of the threat perceptions of others. The implication of this more complicated formulation is that you will want to extend friendly relations more broadly, because this gives your alliance options the highest degree of adaptability to unforeseen events. You never know when you may need to help a friend. This makes it ‘getting to know you’ time for European and Asian nations in the field of security and defence.

There are signs from some parts of Europe that this is starting to happen, but for now only on a bilateral basis. Even before UK Prime Minister Cameron’s security accented visit to six Asian nations including Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar (with ‘defence’ industry deals included in Japan and Indonesia), the UK agreed with Vietnam a ‘defence co-operation action plan’pursuant to a MoU signed in 2011.

What of Europe as a whole? So far, not so good. Sticking with just that one country example, consider these two headlines from recent weeks:  ‘EU pursues trade deal with Vietnam‘ and ‘Europe ignoring geopolitical flashpoint of South China Sea‘. If Europe as a whole starts to recognize the way these three shifts are shortening the distance with Asia over its security interests, then perhaps we could look forward to a day when European defense and security policy is a bit more ‘joined up’ with its trade and economic interests, and has something more bold, more externally oriented, more positive and more forward-looking to talk about than ‘pooling and sharing‘ or ‘crisis management’.

1 Comment

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One response to “The three great shifts and why Europe should be more engaged in Asian security issues.

  1. sirhumphrey1

    Great article and really interesting read. The balance of power is definitely moving eastwards, and its essential that Europe works out a positive move to engagement with a region that it has long seen as out of its sphere of direct influence / access.

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