Surge in Europe’s arms sales to Asia

Even though the European integration has been built and developed on a “pacifist” platform after the Second World War’s tragedies, France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands keep selling arms worth billions of dollars to Asia-Pacific nations.

Despite its efforts, the European Union (EU) has never been an influential actor in the geopolitical space ranging from the Eastern Arabian Sea to the Western Pacific.

Scorpene submarine leak

Workers and engineers from Mazagon Dock cheer during the floating of the first Project 75 (Scorpene) submarine on pontoon, in Mumbai

Though irrelevant as a diplomatic broker and a fighting force, the European bloc (in reality, its single member states) has still found its pragmatic and lucrative way to impact on Indo-Pacific affairs.

The recent leak by the Australian media of secrets about the combat capacities of French Scorpene-class vessels has indeed shed light on the growing amount of Europe’s arm sales in Asia-Pacific.

In 2005, India signed a $3.5 billion deal with France’s state-owned shipbuilder DCNS to buy six Scorpene submarines; the France-made small-to-intermediate size underwater vessels, which are already used by the Malaysian navy, are being constructed by DCNS in cooperation with an Indian government-controlled defense company in Maharashtra.

France and Germany at the forefront

France’s arms selling-spree in India is not limited to the Scorpene submarines. Paris is also trying to complete an $8.9 billion deal with Delhi for the acquisition of 36 Dassault Rafale fighter jets by the Indian Air Force. India is also interested in purchasing French missiles and munitions at a cost of $1 billion.

In another development, in April, DCNS obtained a multi-billion contract to provide Australia with 12 Shortfin Barracuda submarines over a period of 50 years. The new underwater vessels will be part of Canberra’s next generation fleet.

DCNS secured the submarine deal, one of the most profitable in history, in a competition with Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) and Japan’s joint venture between Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

If France is dominating – among European countries – weapon sales in Asia-Pacific, Germany is hardly standing there looking. In early August, the German industry manufacturer Rheinmetall AG launched a joint cooperation with Malaysia’s Etika Strategi and Turkey’s BMC to produce armored vehicles. The initiative is aimed at expanding the three defense industry manufacturers’ activities in Asia. In addition, TKMS has to deliver to the Singaporean navy two Type 218SG submarines by 2020, a purchase that will cost the Southeast Asian city-state $2.2 billion.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in the 2000-2015 stint France and Germany sold to Asian-Pacific nations defense items worth $9,681 billion and $7,166 billion respectively. The list continues with Britain ($4,736 billion), Sweden ($2,485 billion), Spain ($2,135 billion), Italy ($1,924 billion) and the Netherlands ($1,197 billion), only citing the most prominent European arm suppliers.

European countries systematically skirt the EU arms embargo on China, which Brussels imposed on Beijing in the wake of the crackdown of Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. China buys up components, dual-use goods and sub-systems designed and manufactured in Europe, seizing the relative technology.

In fact, if European countries cannot sell to China complete weapon systems, they can transfer part of them, in particular engines and electronic apparatuses for helicopters and naval propulsion, SIPRI reports.

American defense companies too manage to transfer indigenous components, spare parts and weapon systems to China although the US arms embargo on Beijing is far more binding than EU’s.

Business as usual

France and Germany, the most powerful EU member states, have the lion’s share in the European arms sales to Asian-Pacific countries.

France is the one EU nation with a credible Asian-Pacific military presence and the remnants of a colonial empire to defend; faced with a decade of stagnant economy, Paris has deliberately chosen to prop up its defense industry and is expected to become the world’s second-largest arms supplier – behind the US and ahead of Russia – in a couple of years.

Berlin usually tries to shy away from military conflicts, even when these rage in Europe’s neighborhood. However, it seems that German leaders lose their diplomacy-focused approach to international crises when it comes to profit from the Indo-Pacific geopolitical instability.

European arms export to Asian nations remains in large part “neutral”, as EU countries quietly place orders with both sides of a particular conflict. EU states in fact make no distinction between belligerent India and Pakistan, as well as between China and the nations that dispute Chinese claims over vast segments of the East China and South China seas.

Thus for the EU, it is (arms) business as usual in Asia, like for the US and Russia, even though the European integration has been built and developed on a “pacifist” platform after the Second World War’s tragedies. But this is yet another cruel irony of history.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributing writer to the South China Morning Post and the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. In the past, his articles have also appeared in The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review, The Jerusalem Post and the EUobserver, among others.

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