Europe’s undeclared role in Asian security – time to bring the arms trade under strategic control?

eurofighterPeople sometimes ask ‘what should be Europe’s role in Asian security?’, but surely we have first to understand the role European nations and their institutions are already playing.

Something that doesn’t often get discussed (excepting the EU embargo on arms to China) is the increasingly important role played by Europe as supplier of defence equipment and technology to Asia, as was noted in a recent article in The Diplomat. Consider the following selection of headlines from recent months –

April 9th: Visit of Prime Minister to Germany (April 10-12, 2013) & India Germany Defence Relations While the main agenda for the Prime Minister’s visit to Germany will be economic and other fields such as education defence has also found mention in the briefings by the Foreign Secretary to the media. As per the German Embassy in New Delhi Web Site, so far, “Indo-German Defence Cooperation mainly focused on the armament sector. A new momentum in the bilateral military and strategic relations was achieved in 2006, when German Defence Minister Dr. Franz Josef Jung and his Indian counterpart Mr. Pranab Mukherjee signed an Agreement concerning Bilateral Defence Cooperation between the two Ministries of Defence (MoD). The agreement envisaged a deeper cooperation regarding security and defence issues including the exchange and training of military personnel, greater cooperation with regard to the development of joint defence productions as well as increased technology transfer. A High Defence Committee (HDC) meets once per year, co-chaired by the state secretary of the German MoD and the defence secretary of the Indian MoD. Besides ensuring a regular strategic dialogue the HDC approves programmes which entail about 30 to 40 projects per year,” says the Embassy web site. India has the HDW submarine in the arsenal while Germany was hoping for a breakthrough in the Euro fighter the aircraft fell through in the commercial stage.

April 22nd: Singapore Defence Minister assures strong bilateral ties on first Germany visit Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen is visiting Germany for an introductory visit from 22 to 24 April 2013. Dr Ng met with his counterpart Dr Thomas de Maizière in Berlin. During the meeting, both parties reaffirmed the warm and growing bilateral relations between Singapore and Germany. Prior to their meeting, Dr Ng inspected a Guard of Honour with Dr de Maizière.During their bilateral meeting, Dr Ng and Dr de Maizière discussed political and security developments in Europe and Asia, as well as bilateral defence cooperation. Dr Ng also conveyed Singapore’s appreciation for the German government’s support for the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) armour training in Germany. With the recent agreement to provide a second training window from 2013 onwards, the SAF will now be able to train in Germany twice a year. Both parties expressed commitment to further strengthen and expand bilateral defence cooperation. Dr Ng also conveyed that he was looking forward to Dr de Maizière’s attendance at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue in June this year.Dr Ng will be visiting the SAF’s armour live-firing exercise, codenamed Panzer Strike, as well as meeting with Chair of the Bundestag Defence Committee Dr Susanne Kastner today. Dr Ng will also attend the German Armed Forces’ military band ceremony, the Grand Tattoo, today.Singapore and Germany interact regularly in a range of defence interactions, such as visits, military exchanges, professional courses, policy dialogues and technology collaboration. Both countries signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement in September 2005 to formalise their defence interactions.

June 23rd: Vietnam, France beef up defence ties … effective cooperation between the two sides over the past years, including the annual Joint Defence Committee mechanism, cooperation in defence science and technology, as well as the exchange of experience in military medicine and hydrography….Vietnam is ready to serve as a bridge to expand France-ASEAN relations, he noted.

August 3rd: Philippines acquiring French vessel for West Philippines Sea

August 15th: Stronger defence link drives Vietnam-Poland forward WARSAW (VNS)— Polish Minister of National Defence Tomasz Siemoniak has made it clear that stronger bilateral defence link will drive Vietnam-Poland ties forward. He has agreed with his Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh’s proposal at their talks in Warsaw on August 12 that the two countries should strengthen defence link by facilitating visits by all-level delegations. At the same time, both sides should establish a deputy ministerial-level defence dialogue mechanism, and work together on education- training, defence industry, and exchange of information and research as well.

August 16th: UK boosting defence co-operation with Japan and Korea

For all the talk about Europe’s role in Asia being about supporting confidence building, mediation and peaceful settlement of disputes according to rule of law and through effective multilateral institutions, the fact that Europeans’ trade in arms and related technology has a considerable impact on Asian security somehow gets lost. According to a recent report by Amnesty International (‘Undermining Global Security: the European Union’s arms exports):

“The major EU arms exporting countries – France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the United Kingdom – account for one third of the world’s arms deals. With ten new Member States, the EU now has over 400 small arms companies in 23 countries, almost as many as the USA”.

A recent memo by the European Commission entitled ‘Towards a more competitive and efficient defence and security sector’ looked at ways of strengthening the ‘international dimension’:

“Exports outside Europe have become increasingly important for defence industries to compensate for shrinking home markets. The Commission will therefore establish a dialogue with stakeholders on how to support European industries on third markets. With respect to offsets on third markets, this dialogue will aim at mitigating possible negative impacts of such offsets on the internal market and the European defence industrial base. It will also explore how EU institutions could promote European suppliers in situations where only one company from Europe is competing with suppliers from other parts of the world.”

So if Europe’s arms trade has reached strategic scale, presumably it is bound into the strategies of the European security institutions and their approach to the role in Asia?

EU: The Joint EU – US statement on the Asia-Pacific region (12 July 2012) is silent on the matter. The 15 June 2012 Guidelines on the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia gets as far as identifying  some of the issues driving the regional arms race:

“The South China Sea issues give one example of the potential for competitive nationalism in the region: with China’s economic development, more active diplomacy, and increasing (and untransparent) defence expenditure, the strategic balance in the region is shifting. Despite growing regional economic interdependence, the uncertainties generated by such geopolitical changes, combined with unresolved historical and territorial disputes, have the potential to create significant tensions. Rising energy demand and the desire for energy security, andcompetition for resources more broadly, can compound these tensions”.

But there is nothing under section III headed ‘The EU’s response’ that would guide member states’ policies on defence cooperation and supply of defence equipment and technology, either in reference to this specific danger or any other strategic issue. While failing to take a balanced account of this aspect of the European role in Asian security, the guidelines say the EU will nevertheless  “encourage China to be more transparent about its defence expenditure, doctrine and institutions”.

It is not as if the EU does not recognize the strategic risk arising from arms and technology transfers:

“The EU should also, in consultation with all partners, deepen its understanding of the military balance affecting the cross-strait situation, of the technologies and capabilities which, if transferred to the region, could disturb that balance, and of the related risks to stability including the risk of miscalculation. Member States will be able to take account of that assessment as they apply the Code of Conduct in relation to their exports to the region of strategic and military items.”

But this observation is made exclusively with reference to the China-Taiwan issue: not carried over in the sections dealing with the other issues identified (Korean Peninsula and South China Sea), where similar effects on the balance of power can be anticipated. The EC memo ‘Towards a more competitive and efficient defence and security sector’ looks to further expand ‘dual use’ (civil/military) development, an area that has complicated international controls in the past (link), e.g. with respect to the China embargo.

Where is the mechanism for controlling these risks? The experts at SIPRI are doubtful about the effectiveness of the EU’s own internal reporting system on arms exports. Perhaps a question to consider when the EU comes to review its 10 year old Security Strategy.

NATO:  You would think NATO would be interested, wouldn’t you? After all, if Obama’s Whitehouse is pivoting to Asia then you might think that European allies would be conscripted into the effort, and if Europe’s biggest role in Asian security comes through the arms trade then surely this would quickly come onto the cooperative or even collective security agendas, but it hasn’t. Come to think of it, you might expect NATO to be the obvious place for the discussion on what Europeans should do with regard to the pivot/re-balance in general, but there has been a resounding silence on that too. Time for a new Strategic Concept, perhaps.

So beyond the continuation of the EU arms embargo on China, Europe’s rapidly expanding trade in arms to Asia and its effect on the regional balance of power appear to be outside any clear strategic control. As Europe gets more serious about playing a role in Asian security, how long can this continue?


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2 responses to “Europe’s undeclared role in Asian security – time to bring the arms trade under strategic control?

  1. FJ

    Whereas World’s centre of gravity has been shifting to Asia for several years, Europe is torn by the various and somehow opposite or contradictory centres of interest of its Member States. France is interested by Africa or Mediterranean Sea , Spain by Gibraltar and South America, Germany by Central Europe and trade routes, Central Europe by Russia, Italy by the Balkans and North Africa, etc… how can we expect the EU of having a clear understanding of its own interests? I don’t believe that we will go far beyond political correctness and rhetoric within the next 10 years.

  2. Pingback: How Europe arms China | Europe Asia Security Forum

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