September 2, 2015
Washington worries increasingly about developments in the Asia-Pacific region. The Pentagon has done more than publish a maritime strategy for that part of the world—it has begun to shift military assets that way. Yet it is often said that this is a region in which Washington will not be able to count on its traditional allies in Europe. This is notwithstanding France and the United Kingdom joining the most recent Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, and even smaller Norway coming along with its frigate Fridtjof Nansen, as a tip of the hat to the importance of American security interests in Asia. With few exceptions, Europe consists of smaller nations that may have considerable economic interests in Asia, but they can hardly be expected to join the United States in keeping the peace and managing crisis in the vast Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, many US allies in Europe believe that Afghanistan was a bridge too far for them. In any case, turbulence around the Mediterranean rim, the rise of ISIS, and an increasingly aggressive Russia under Putin will keep European militaries focused closer to home for the foreseeable future. While Washington should hardly expect European deployments of hard power to Asia, European nations have other linkages that could help shape the security environment and military behavior in the region.

The booming Asian market provides strong, enduring, and valuable—if perhaps underused—connections to the military and political leadership in Asia. That market is growing rapidly, as most of the states are rapidly building modern militaries not only to protect territory, but project force, and signal their arrival as significant powers. European companies have done well. Take submarines, for example. Australia and Singapore have bought new or refurbished Swedish boats, and Pakistan acquired French submarines in the early 2000s. South Korea and Indonesia each operate the best-selling submarine of all times, the German Type 209. India operates 209s too, and along with Malaysia, French Scorpene boats as well. South Korea has bought into the German follow-on class, the Type 212. Little suggests that this buying spree has reduced hunger for more sophisticated submarines in Asia. Singapore just signed on to a new class of German boats, while the purchase of a new class of Australian submarines is turning into a nail-biter for European submarine builders. Will there be a Japanese sale, or a domestic build? Indonesia too is eyeing an upgraded version of its 209s.

But submarines constitute just one example of where European firms have made real connections in the Asia-Pacific defense market. Similar examples can be found in aviation: India has bought French Rafales from Dassault, Thailand has bought Swedish Gripens from Saab, and Australia has bought French tankers from Airbus. Much the same is true for surface warships. Defense deals of this size are not merely commercial transactions, as they usually come with technical assistance, technology transfer, supply chains in the receiving countries, and sophisticated training and education for technicians and operators with the armed forces of the country in which the company is headquartered. This creates deep and lasting linkages between buying and selling governments, industries, and militaries. These linkages are of real consequence when countries decide from whom to buy major systems. The United States itself has benefitted greatly from the links created by US defense sales, as these draw allies closer and create connections between current and emerging political and military leaders. Think about the F-16 as the “sale of the century,” and the effort to duplicate that dominance with the F-35.

While not through direct and visible deployments, alliances, and security cooperation, European nations do have real reach into the Asia-Pacific defense community through defense sales. Beyond technical training and skills transfer, these linkages can also be used to help inform the views, perspectives, and behavior of the current and emerging political and military leadership in many of the rising military powers of Asia. These linkages can be a real contribution to global security, as Asian nations are playing more prominent roles in security regionally and globally, while operating in an Asia-Pacific strategic environment that is increasingly testy and competitive, not least in the South China Sea. Simple geography explains why Europe will never care as much about Asian security as the United States does. But even smaller European nations have influence on the direction of the defense communities in the region through their defense companies. Using those links to help them grow into responsible security players in an increasingly contested strategic environment would be a real contribution to a peaceful and stable 21st century.

Magnus Nordenman is deputy director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.