Woody Allen said that 80% of life is showing up. By that standard, the various European security actors (EU, NATO, a couple of sovereign states) made the grade at this year’s Shangri-la shindig on Asian security.
EU: Cathy Ashton went (first time) and gave a speech in plenary. It was a chance for the EU to present itself “not as an Asian power, but an Asian partner“. Ashton’s speech was mostly taken up with promoting the EU’s ‘comprehensive approach’ to addressing security challenges, but there was a more substantive point worth noting on arrangements to enable partnering with Asian Nations on the EU’s Crisis Management missions, “...we have concluded a framework agreement with New Zealand and hope to sign soon with Australia and South Korea for participation in EU-led missions. We look forward to further participation in worldwide missions from all our partners in the Asia-Pacific.” Ashton also announced that she will attend the ARF Summit in Brunei this year.
NATO: represented by Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, General Knud Bartels, who’s speech was mostly about Afghanistan. But he did some good schmoozing too – “With General Shigeru Iwasaki, the Japan Self Defense Force Chief of the Joint Staff, Bartels shared perspectives on strengthening practical military-to-military cooperation between NATO and Japan. Building on the joint political declaration signed in April 2013 during the visit of NATO’s Secretary General in Japan, the Generals outlined areas where Japan and NATO can develop closer cooperation beyond Afghanistan, such as crisis management, peace-support operations and counter-piracy missions. In bilateral meetings with General David Hurley, Chief of the Australian Defence Force, and Lieutenant General Richard Rhys Jones, Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force the same topics were raised and security perspectives in the Asia-Pacific region were exchanged. In a separate session, General Bartels met with Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, Deputy Chief of General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, with whom he had an open discussion on the security situation in Central Asia, South Asia and North-East Asia. Following up on the 7th NATO-China staff talks, the two leaders discussed the potential for closer military-to-military cooperation, particularly in the field of counter-piracy. China welcomed NATO as part of the Shangri-La dialogue.”
UK: Minister of Defence Philip Hammond gave a speech in the category of military modernization and strategic transparency. The UK cares about Asia because (i) 5 Power Defence Agreement; (ii) maritime trading nation; (iii) interest in regional security and freedom of Asian region’s seas; (iv) balance of geopolitical power is shifting to Asia. There was lots about how the UK is transparent because of its public strategy reviews, cooperation in multilateral frameworks, new commitment to defence engagement. This last point is well taken in the context of earlier disclosures on the plans for 2020. But the bit I found most relevant was the clear position of the UK on the pivot: “we have been consistently clear about the need for European NATO nations to take greater responsibility for security in our own backyard as our contribution to a greater United States’ focus upon the Asia Pacific region.”
France: Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drain spoke on Advancing Defence Cooperation In The Asia-Pacific. Globalization, multi-polarity, insisting that distance and shortage of cash will not mean France is less committed to being active in the region, promoting the regional security architecture, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber, piracy. It’s a good thing talk is cheap.
German and Swedish Ministers were there too apparently, as noted by IISS, who organized the event. Its Director-General and Chief Executive Dr John Chipman said:
‘The striking feature about the official participation is the breadth and depth of, surprisingly, European interest. All of the ‘Big Three’ European defence minsters – French, German and British – will be there, as well as Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt. We are also delighted that Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the European Union is participating for the first time, and speaking in plenary. She will be accompanied by the chairman of the EU military committee. The chair of NATO’s Military Committee, General Knud Bartels, is also attending. European military expenditure may be in decline but defence diplomacy in the Asia- Pacific cannot be ignored.‘
So the Europeans are showing up, which is something. It is also fair to say that the number and content of speeches is not the best measure of their participation. The Shangri la dialogue is supposed to be all about the informal chats. But NATO turning up on the heels of the Secretary General’s visit to E. Asia is notable. As is the EU’s arrangements to include Asian participation in its missions and operations. The bilateral talk is another sign that the Europeans are keen to make their presence felt in the region’s security affairs. Being there is a start but we are still to see the emergence of anything like a coherent European position on its role in the region.
So far Europeans’ responses to the pivot fall into three categories:
1) Backfillers. USA is going to the Pacific, so let’s fill the vacuum by being more active in our own back yard.
2) Me too-ists. Let’s get in on the Pivot, and make something out of it for ourselves. Be that profits from the regional arms race, or the prestige (or if you prefer, la gloire) of posing as powers with global reach. Just the latest theatre in which to mount a performance as the good ally to the USA, or project a show of sovereign potency.
3) Skeptics. The pivot is a security issue and an issue for the Americans, not us. Europeans are no longer a global security actor. And besides, we don’t want to upset the Chinese.
So maybe showing up really is 80% of what we can expect.