As the European Union steps up its efforts in the Indo-Pacific, a representative has praised New Zealand’s response to the Ukraine invasion and outlined how the EU both cooperates and competes with China

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened rather than diminished the European Union’s interest in the Indo-Pacific, its special envoy to the region says, with hopes the “price tag” tied to the international response will prevent further conflict elsewhere.

Gabriele Visentin also praised New Zealand’s role as a more credible partner with some Pacific countries, describing the EU and Aotearoa as “100 percent aligned” in their approach to the Indo-Pacific.

Visentin, who was appointed as the EU’s first special envoy to the Indo-Pacific in September last year, this week made the first visit by a representative since the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If you allow me to be very direct, it’s a way to put a price tag on the breach of the multilateral order.”
– Gabriele Visentin on sanctions

In an interview with Newsroom, Visentin said Russia’s clear breach of international law had led to an unprecedented response through United Nations resolutions, economic sanctions and military support.

“If you allow me to be very direct, it’s a way to put a price tag on the breach of the multilateral order – so if you do it, this is what you’re going to get as a response.”

While the Government has slowed down its timeline for the establishment of a wider autonomous sanctions regime, Visentin told Newsroom the EU’s own sanctions set-up had been vital to its response.

“It has to be autonomous, but they also have to be coordinated. What happened was that all the packages of sanctions [were]…in total coordination, even outside of the UN, so I think this is a formidable means of deterrence for initiatives like aggressive wars.”

Delivering the 2022 Europa Lecture to a New Zealand audience on Tuesday, Visentin praised New Zealand for showing solidarity with Ukraine and approving both sanctions and financial support.

“What happens in Europe, in Ukraine ,does matter here in the Indo-Pacific and in New Zealand. The invasion of Ukraine is a threat not only to Ukraine and to the European Union, but it is an attack on the rules-based multilateral order.”

The Indo-Pacific had emerged as the world’s new centre of gravity in both economic and geopolitical terms, he said, with projections of a swelling middle class sparking financial opportunity and environmental concerns.

The EU released an Indo-Pacific strategy last September, outlining increased European engagement “based on promoting democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and universally agreed commitments”, and Visentin said the region remained critical to its plans.

“What is happening in Ukraine does not decrease the attention of the EU towards the Indo-Pacific. On the contrary, it makes our resolve to act stronger: what is happening there is calling on us to act in a more credible way geopolitically, and to act strongly with other like-minded partners in order to defend the international rules-based order.”

“We consider China as a partner, as a competitor, as a rival – the prism against which we deal with China is pragmatic, is constructive.”
– Gabriele Visentin

Visentin said the EU’s development projects in the region would focus on “creating links and not dependencies” – seemingly a veiled reference to long-standing concerns about ‘debt trap diplomacy’ by China – with financial sustainability at the front of mind.

However, he repeated previous EU assurances about its strategy being based around cooperation rather than confrontation, while saying it and New Zealand were very like-minded in their approaches to China.

“We consider China as a partner, as a competitor, as a rival – the prism against which we deal with China is pragmatic, is constructive.”

Progress in areas like climate change required cooperation with China, while its economic rise was not a problem as long as it adhered to the rules of international institutions.

Earlier this year, the EU launched a World Trade Organisation case against the Asian superpower over alleged “discriminatory trade practices” against Lithuania, related to the Baltic state’s decision to deepen its ties with Taiwan, and Visentin told Newsroom China had not been respecting WTO rules.

“The internal market and trade policy are exclusive competences of the EU, these are the only federal parts of the EU’s organisation, so when you hit trade against a member state, then you hit trade against the EU and therefore you affect the functioning of the internal market – this is why the EU has to act.”

The EU had also pushed back in other areas where China’s actions were “completely incompatible with our ways of seeing things” such as human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, he told the audience.

NZ ‘natural interlocutor’ for Pacific

While some analysts had suggested the Chinese government could look to absorb some of the Russian exports blocked from other countries following the invasion, that had not been the case to date.

“China is a very wise actor, it perfectly knows what its interests are. It’s not for me to say but just look at the global GDP of Russia and the global GDP of Europe and then you will see what the buttered side of the bread is.”

Speaking about New Zealand’s own role in the Indo-Pacific, Visentin said its approach and that of the EU were “100 percent aligned”.

“The landmark speech of PM [Jacinda] Ardern as of last July, if you take away the word New Zealand and you put EU there, I think it could be precisely an EU document.”

In a nod to the prolonged negotiations between the EU and Aotearoa on a free trade agreement, he said the bloc’s strength came in its economic power and that was why it was deepening its trade relations in the region.

Asked by Newsroom where New Zealand’s advantages in the Indo-Pacific laid compared to the EU, Visentin cited its position as “a natural interlocutor for the Pacific states” given its geographical location and history.

“[Its] capacity of talking, understanding and respecting the countries in the region, and also the way that New Zealand has to deal with the bigger partners, make it a more credible partner for the Pacific Islands countries.”

The EU itself wanted to hear from Pacific nations about their own priorities for support, with the effects of climate change a clear priority from discussions to date.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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