Interview with Mr. Gabriele Visentin

EU Special Envoy for the Indo-Pacific

November 19, 2021
11 Min. Read
EU Special Envoy for the Indo-Pacific Mr. Visentin and SPF Senior Research Fellow Mr. Nishida
Following the launch of the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy in September 2021, SPF Senior Research Fellow Ippeita Nishida spoke with Mr. Gabriele Visentin, the first ever EU Special Envoy for the Indo-Pacific. Their wide-ranging discussion covered issues including the role of the special envoy, the EU’s "multi-faceted" approach toward China, the surprise AUKUS announcement on the eve of the EU Indo-Pacific strategy launch, and more.
Read the previous installment of this interview series featuring a conversation with Dr. Alison Weston, Head of the Division for Partnerships and Task Force NATO in the European External Action Service (EEAS), about the EU’s role as a security partner in the Indo-Pacific region.
Mr. Nishida: As the first ever EU special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, could you explain your role in supporting the comprehensive EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific?
Mr. Visentin: The decision to appoint a special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, a new position created on September 1, 2021, is evidence of fact that the EU has decided to step up its commitment and level of focus in the region.
The EU Indo-Pacific strategy is what we call a Team Europe endeavor. This requires effort not just by the EU and EU institutions, but also EU member states and partners in the region must all work together to take positive, active steps toward implementation.
My job, to put it really simply, is to connect the dots in order to facilitate the implementation of the EU strategy by explaining and creating consensus around the EU Indo-Pacific strategy with partners in the region and within Europe with member states.
Mr. Nishida: As the special envoy, how do you hope to see the EU “reinforce its role as a reliable partner bringing added value” to the relationship with partners in the region?
Mr. Visentin: The Indo-Pacific region is the future. The world’s center of gravity has shifted to the Indo-Pacific both in geo-economic and geopolitical terms. The EU must position itself by understanding where the big trends are occurring.
The Indo-Pacific creates 60% of global GDP. In addition, 40% of global trade for the EU passes through the Indo-Pacific and critical straits in the region, and it is the second largest destination for EU exports. The EU is also a resident actor in the Indo-Pacific. More than 2 million EU citizens live on EU soil in the region, generally on French territories. The Indo-Pacific strategy is not simply a policy toward third states or third countries – it is also relevant to the EU directly. To provide further perspective, by 2030 more than 2.4 billion persons will get out of poverty around the world, and 90% of this will be in the Indo-Pacific region.

The EU has a large stake in the region’s future, and we believe that we can also make a significant contribution.

Alongside all of this economic dynamism, we also have to acknowledge that the regional order is facing growing challenges. Political and geopolitical competition continues to intensify, and we are seeing the consequences all around the world, but most sharply in the region.
We see conflicts over land and maritime borders. We see a growing lack of trust among the main players. Therefore, as the European Union, we have a vital interest that the regional order remains open and rules-based.
The EU has a large stake in the region’s future, and we believe that we can also make a significant contribution. This is recognized by our partners, who view the EU as a trusted, consistent, and reliable partner.
Our strategy is an open strategy. It is not confrontational and it calls on all the partners who wants to join us to do it. We create a level playing field across our seven priority areas and we are open to cooperate with any willing partner.
We have explicit acknowledgement and welcome of our strategy by main players in the region – Japan, India, Indonesia, it would be too long of a list to name them all. Even the U.S. openly recognized its added value and welcomed it.

Mr. Nishida: Do you expect to have reciprocal engagement by regional partners in other important issues, such as peace and security in Africa?
Mr. Visentin: Positive engagement by actors from the Indo-Pacific region could certainly help in promoting peace, stability, and security in the African continent. There are various means that the EU has already deployed, such as the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions. We have now created the European Peace Facility fund, supporting capacity building and providing equipment for security forces.
Looking to Japan specifically, there is an interesting reference to Africa in the Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity that the EU signed with Japan in December 2019. Although not directly related to security, the agreement states that the EU and Japan will endeavor to secure synergies and complementarity on connectivity and infrastructure in Africa.
In the future, there is room to consider ways to enhance and broaden our cooperation to include the field of peace and security, but we have already a clear reference to the fact that the EU and Japan want to join forces for cooperation in Africa.
Mr. Nishida: The Indo-Pacific strategy mentions Taiwan as a partner at the same level as other countries. At the same time, the document also states that the EU will take a multi-faceted approach to China and articulate disagreements over human rights issues. While the EU certainly will maintain its close relationship with China, how are you going to engage and manage that relationship in the context of this strategy?
Mr. Visentin: We engage with China in a multi-faceted way. We engage bilaterally as a partner, as a competitor, and as a rival. We seek to promote solutions to common challenges, cooperate on issues of common interest, and encourage China to play its part in a peaceful and thriving Indo-Pacific region.
The EU will continue to protect our national interests and promote our values. This includes pushing back on areas where fundamental disagreements exist with China, such as on human rights. As one example, the EU imposed sanctions on China based on human rights, and China retaliated by sanctioning members of the European parliament as well as ambassadors of the political and security committee.
While we do mention Taiwan in the strategy, I want to make it clear that the EU recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China. At the same time, the EU and Taiwan are in regular policy dialogues on economic, trade, and investment issues. The EU and member states have an interest in further developing relations with Taiwan, which has been an important economic like-minded partner for these many years. The EU maintains a European economic and trade office in Taipei for this purpose.
In this way, we really have a clear framework in which we both engage with China and with Taiwan, and we consider our engagement with Taiwan as part of our One-China policy.
At the same time, the EU is concerned that tensions in the Taiwan Strait have increased, and we call on all actors to work toward a peaceful resolution to their different views. The EU is very much in the interest of maintaining the status quo in the region because of the vital interest of EU and of the region as well.
Regarding the reference to Taiwan in our strategy, I can only say that we want to build upon the strong economic links that already exist with Taiwan and further the dialogues that exist, such as the industrial policy dialogue and digital dialogue.
The EU shared these views during the visit of Commissioner Breton to Tokyo last month when discussing supply chains, critical value chains, and cooperation on semiconductors. The EU considers and hopes to see Taiwan as an important partner to ensure the supply of semi-conductors, and on this we have a commonality of views with Japan.
Mr. Nishida: Just prior to the release of the EU communication, we saw the announcement of AUKUS, the security pact among the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. This caught many EU member states, especially France, very much by surprise. How does the AUKUS announcement influence the debate within the EU on the course of the Indo-Pacific strategy and the issue of EU’s strategic autonomy?
Mr. Visentin: The AUKUS announcement came in as a surprise and the timing of the announcement was not exactly welcomed by us, because it was exactly the night before the press conference to announce our own EU strategy. On a personal note, I was woken up at 6:50 on September 16 by the spokesperson of the high representative saying we have to change the lines for the press conference because AUKUS had been announced.

AUKUS paradoxically had a very positive effect on us by underlining the importance of establishing and implementing EU policies in the region.

Beyond the optics, the AUKUS agreement, as we said, was not welcome because it was a breach of trust amongst partners, allies, and friends. We would have expected to be consulted or informed in advance, but this did not happen. These are geopolitical choices done by Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. about their future in terms of defense. However, we are talking about a signed contract that then was breached.
At the same time, AUKUS paradoxically had a very positive effect on us by underlining the importance of establishing and implementing EU policies in the region. We can say that AUKUS overshadowed our strategy’s presentation, but it created consensus among all the member states of EU to go ahead on the implementation of our strategy by emphasizing the ever-growing relevance and importance of Indo-Pacific region.
Mr. Nishida: In the Indo-Pacific strategy, Japan is one of the countries most frequently mentioned. What expectations do you have for Japan and how do you envision the EU-Japan cooperation unfolding across the seven areas of focus?
Mr. Visentin: Japan is not only our closest partner and most like-minded partner in the region, but it is the only G7 member in the region, one of the G20 members, and will have the G7 presidency in 2023.
We have also made clear that the implementation of the communication will very likely happen first with the countries that already have an Indo-Pacific strategy of their own. Japan was the first country in the region to come out with an Indo-Pacific policy and strategy, which makes it a natural and prominent partner for us.
Several of the strengths of the EU-Japan relationship can provide examples of strong cooperation that can inspire our partners elsewhere in the region, on themes including trade, connectivity, or climate action.
For example, we have the EU-Japan Green Alliance, which was established in the last summit between leaders in May 2021. This is a big opportunity to boost cooperation on energy transition; environment; business and regulatory cooperation; and research and innovation. The possibilities for fruitful, win-win cooperation on research and development are very clear. Furthermore, we can join forces under the alliance to accelerate energy transition in third countries in the region and further afield.
Another promising opportunity is intensifying our collaboration in the digital domain. Commissioner Breton visited Tokyo and spoke of the potential for teamwork between organizations in the EU and Japan to ensure stable access to semiconductors both by European and Japanese enterprises. Beyond this issue of supply chain resilience is a host of possibilities in 5G and 6G networks, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and more.
I should also mention our desire to expand our security and defense cooperation with Japan to bolster regional security. For example, we want to expand activities like the joint naval exercises that just took place last weekend in the Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea jointly with our CSDP Mission Atalanta, in consort possibly with other third countries. In addition to the joint naval exercises, we can also think about joining forces in CSDP missions such as port calls.
Other fields where we can deepen our already exiting cooperation is on cybersecurity, on monitoring and countering disinformation, counterterrorism, and crisis management.
In short, there is a lot of scope and certainly the willingness from the EU and Japan to use the opportunities of the strategic boost our bilateral ties and joint effort in support of regional stability, sustainable development, and long-term prosperity.
Let me close with this. We have talked about possible avenues of cooperation, actions, and the geopolitical situation. If you look at the first pages of our communication, we clearly say that all of this is inspired by the very DNA of the EU, which is respect for human rights, rule of law, and democracy. This makes the EU and Japan very much alike.
Mr. Nishida: Thank you.

Profile of Gabriele Visentin
EU Special Envoy for the Indo-Pacific

Mr. Gabriele Visentin was appointed EU Special Envoy for the Indo-Pacific in September 2021. He has been an official of the European External Action Service since 2011, where he served as Head of the Parliamentary Affairs Division.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Visentin was an official of the European Commission and served in the Directorate General for External Relations, as the representative of the European Commission to the Committee for the civilian crisis management of the EU (CivCom). Mr. Visentin was also Head of Cabinet to the last President of the ECSC (European Community for Steel and Coal) and, during the Italian Presidency of the EU, he was detached to Rome as Advisor on European affairs to the Minister of Industry, Energy and International Trade.     
Mr. Visentin holds a degree in law and is specialized in International and Community law.   
Profile of Ippeita Nishida
Senior Research Fellow, Security Studies Program, Sasakawa Peace Foundation

Received a master’s degree in development studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Worked for in the private sector before joining the international NGO Médecins Sans Frontières to work in areas of conflict including South Sudan and Liberia. Returned to Japan and worked as a researcher at the Secretariat of the International Peace Cooperation Headquarters and a researcher of the Tokyo Foundation (2011–2016) before joining the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in October 2016.

Assumed his current position in June 2018, engaging in policy research in relation to external assistance, security cooperation, and assistance for vulnerable countries.

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