The strategy involves finding ways to increase the naval deployments by EU member states to protect “the sea lines of communication and freedom of navigation”, while upping co-operation with regional countries on trade, health, data, infrastructure, and the environment. EU countries could also become more diplomatically active on regional issues, and increase their military presence.
The EU plan was unveiled a day after the US, UK and Australia announced a new trilateral defence pact for the region under which Washington would help Canberra develop a fleet of nuclear-power submarines.
The new deal jettisoned a past agreement with France worth more than €50 billion, in a contract to buy 12 diesel Shortfin Barracuda submarines that had run into cost overruns and delays since it was signed in 2016.
The move provoked fury in France, with foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian describing it as a “a stab in the back” and not the behaviour of an ally.
“We had established a trusting relationship with Australia, and this trust was betrayed,” Le Drian said, in an interview with Franceinfo on Thursday. “We’re going to need clarifications. We have contracts. The Australians need to tell us how they’re getting out of it. We’re going to need explanation... this is not the end of the story.”
The British government has denied that relations with France could be damaged, describing the submarine contract as a matter for France and Australia.
“We have and continue to have a very close relationship with France,” a Downing Street spokesman told lobby journalists, referring to “longstanding security and defence relationships”.
But prime minister Boris Johnson came under pressure from his predecessor Theresa May in parliament, as she challenged him about what would happen under the plan should China invade Taiwan, which Beijing views as an errant province.
“What are the implications of this pact for the stance that would be taken by the United Kingdom in its response should China attempt to invade Taiwan?” May asked.
An increasingly aggressive territorial stance by Beijing is prompting fresh strategising by Western countries on how to deal with a country which has become an unavoidable economic behemoth and is considered an essential ally on environmental issues if climate change is to be curbed.
This was the context to several key parts of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s set-piece state of the union address this week, in which she laid out her priorities for the coming year.
She proposed a European rival to China’s strategic Belt and Road infrastructure project, a ban on imports made with forced labour in a nod to alleged abuses of China’s minority Uighur population, and a strategy to boost European microchip manufacturing to ensure security of supply of the crucial items in digital goods.
After efforts to reset relations with Washington after the difficult Trump years, the EU was wrong-footed by the announcement of the Australia-UK-US plan, on the eve of the launch of its own plan.
Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told journalists he had not been kept in the loop.
“We regret not having been informed, not having been part of these talks,” Borrell told journalists as he presented the plan in Brussels, adding that he understood “the extent to which the French government must be disappointed”.
Washington has pushed the EU to take a harder line towards China, but Brussels has sought to find a middle ground and work with Beijing on areas including addressing climate change. Borrell described the EU plan as one of “co-operation, not confrontation”.
“We must survive on our own, as others do,” Borrell said.