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EU Strives to Win a Bigger Say in China’s Backyard

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union offered closer political and investment ties to some 20 countries from across the Indo-Pacific region, as the bloc seeks more influence despite ever-growing Chinese and US ambitions.

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At a forum which gathered foreign ministers from the EU and the Indo-Pacific, several speakers touted the Global Gateway program, Europe’s answer to China’s massive infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative. The meeting Saturday was itself a snub to Beijing, which wasn’t invited.

“Our ambition is to work toward the preservation of the Indo-Pacific as a free, open, prosperous and inclusive region and to build partnerships between equals,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said in a speech. The EU “refuses to enter a logic of blocs that would make escalation and, eventually, confrontation, inevitable.”

After decades of viewing China primarily as a commercial opportunity, the EU is seeking to boost its footprint in the region and reduce its reliance on imports from the world’s second-biggest economy, including on raw materials critical for the bloc’s green transition.

The EU’s dependence on Beijing, whose leader has declared a “no limits” friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was laid bare during the Covid-19 pandemic, when countries and companies scrambled to source masks and other equipment. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has heightened tensions with the West pressing Beijing to distance itself from Moscow.

The EU first adopted a common strategy on the Indo-Pacific in 2021 pushed by France, which has overseas territories in the area. Paris hosted an EU summit to discuss cooperation with the region last year, two days before Russia’s invasion. France was also just reeling from the cancellation of a submarine contract by Australia as Canberra entered a defense alliance with the US and the UK.

Boosting Presence

Ending Saturday’s forum, whose guests included India, Japan and Indonesia, the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the bloc wants “to step up our engagement to deliver more concrete results on the ground.”

Borrell said the EU will pursue 20 Global Gateway projects in the Indo-Pacific “from investment in hydropower, solar energy plants to transportation infrastructure, railways, ports and airports.” The EU late last year signed a partnership agreement with Thailand to foster a bilateral dialog on energy, climate change and other issues.

While France’s Colonna didn’t mention China, she said the Global Gateway strategy was meant to promote “lasting, quality infrastructure projects that don’t put countries in a situation of dependence” including in the digital sector.

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Colonna also said that French frigates would patrol more often in the region. A French warship patrolled the Taiwan Strait last month while China conducted military exercises in the area.

France didn’t invite US representatives last year but Washington was represented Saturday. France has deemed the Indo-Pacific a priority. The region hosts some 1.6 million French citizens and Paris has a military presence in French overseas islands, including New Caledonia, Wallis-and-Futuna or Mayotte, and 8,000 soldiers.

The EU has repeatedly stressed the challenge it faces in persuading partners to side squarely with Ukraine. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba joined the debate Saturday to make a plea for Indo-Pacific countries to support Kyiv.

‘Different Ways’

Before the discussions, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar acknowledged differences on Ukraine. “We all try to address it in our different ways,” Khar told reporters. She added that for Pakistan the priority is “an end to hostilities,” calling for “a process of rebuilding of lives, of diplomacy, of solutions, as quickly as possible.”

Pakistan, along with countries including India, Sri Lanka and China, in February abstained from voting on a UN resolution calling for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. Pakistan has also ordered Russian oil to cover its energy needs, as it seeks to avoid a default by reviving a stalled $6.5 billion bailout package with the International Monetary Fund.

On Friday, EU foreign ministers sought to project a united front on relations with China, saying they had reached an initial consensus on a common blueprint for future ties — although they still need to work out how to smooth out differences. EU leaders will seek to formally coordinate their approach in June during a summit in Brussels.

(Updates with Borrell on projects in seventh paragraph)

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