Divisions among Indo-Pacific countries over issues including China’s assertive posture in their region and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came into sharper focus on Saturday at a European Union forum in Stockholm.
EU officials invited ministers and representatives from the region to discuss ways to cooperate on sustainable growth, environmental initiatives, and the “evolving security landscape in the Indo Pacific”, as the bloc seeks greater influence in a region increasingly affected by the US-China geopolitical rivalry.
But on the thorniest issues of the day, such as Ukraine and Taiwan, discussions were “sobering”, said Filimon Manoni, the deputy secretary general of the Pacific Island Forum, who moderated the session.
Public statements and remarks to the media made it clear that when it came to geopolitical flashpoints, the invitees were not on the same page, although EU officials insisted that visiting delegations were not asked to align with their view on Ukraine.
From left, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Yoshimasa Hayashi, Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno L.P. Marsudi, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Tobias Billstrom, India’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Comoros’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dhoihir Dhoulkamal at the EU Indo-Pacific Ministerial Forum in Sweden. Photo: AFP
“The purpose was not to convince them, we are not on a crusade,” said the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell at a post-summit press conference.
But in announcing Kyiv’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba as a last minute surprise attendee of the forum, they ensured that much of the attention would be on the war.
The previous day, Borrell also warned China that if pressure was not exerted on Russia to help end the war, bilateral relations would suffer.
“If I don’t like your behaviour, you cannot expect to be good friends. It is as simple as that,” Borrell said.
Several Asian ministers intimated on Saturday that while they sympathised with Kuleba, with whom they lunched, they supported an immediate peace, echoing China’s position that the fighting must stop immediately.
This runs counter to the Ukrainian and mainstream European political view that a ceasefire now would allow Russia to regroup and solidify Russia’s territorial gains in Ukraine.
“I knew beforehand that several members of the Indo Pacific were not in the position of the EU,” Borrell said, adding that he was able to glean some new insights from Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, based on his recent meetings with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
Some ministers added that while Europe was welcome to become a stabilising force in the Indo Pacific, they preferred not to pick a side in China’s tensions with the West.
Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar, centre, with Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom, left, and EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. Photo: Reuters
Arriving at the forum, Pakistan’s minister for state Hina Rabbani Khar told reporters that “the whole world is compounded” by the war.
“A country like Pakistan has learned that percolation of conflict is never the answer, we want an end to hostilities and then to conflict so people can go back to building lives,” Khar said.
“Let’s not divide the house into various blocs,” she added.
Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that the Asean group of nations, of which her country holds the rotating presidency, “doesn’t want to see the Indo Pacific region become another theatre of rivalries”.
“The Indo Pacific pie is too big to be enjoyed only by a few. We are not interested in being part of a new Cold War, or to be proxies of great powers,” Marsudi said, addressing the forum’s opening session.
Similar sentiments were expressed by ministers from the Comoros and Sri Lanka. “Africa is suffering from the war in Ukraine,” said Comorian Foreign Minister Dhoihir Dhoulkamal, who said Europe must start listening to smaller, developing countries.
By contrast, ministers from the likes of Fiji, Japan and South Korea pledged strong support for Ukraine, with the latter pair specifically criticising Beijing’s assertive posture in their region.
“The international community is at a historic turning point. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has shaken the very foundation of the international order. Any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force cannot be tolerated, anywhere in the world,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi.
Hayashi said that “the security of Europe and the Indo Pacific can no longer be discussed separately”.
“In the Indo Pacific region, China is continuing and intensifying its unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas,” he added.
While the forum was billed as a summit of around 60 ministers, just 14 of the EU’s 27 top diplomats showed up, despite almost all of them being in Stockholm a day earlier for crunch talks on China.
Source : South China Morning Post