US, Europe and the geopolitics of aircraft sales in Asia

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The Singapore Airshow 2018, which concluded on Sunday, highlighted the growing interest of European defense contractors in the Indo-Pacific arena, seen as a promising export destination for their warplanes. As this market is dominated by US manufacturers, an industrial competition between Europeans and Americans for the sale of military aircraft is taking shape in the most strategic and dynamic chunk of Asia.

Requests for advanced military systems are on the rise across South, Southeast and East Asia, where China’s military advancement, especially in the China Seas and the Indian Ocean, has prompted other regional actors to reinforce their defenses.

In 2016, European Union countries transferred US$2.1 billion worth of weapons to Indo-Pacific nations, nearly the same as the United States ($2.3 billion). Russia was the macro-region’s largest supplier with $3.4 billion worth of arms, while China ranked fourth with $1.2 billion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

‘Buy European’ against ‘Buy American’

Sweden’s Saab Aeronautics and France’s Dassault Aviation aim to expand their shares of the Indo-Pacific military aerospace market, while the Eurofighter consortium wants to start winning orders from countries in the region after its good sales performance in the Middle East. Their pitches come at a time when Lockheed Martin is trying to market the F-35 stealth fighter jet in Southeast Asia. The US defense giant has so far sold its fifth-generation combat aircraft to Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Saab is targeting India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines as potential buyers of its products. The Swedish manufacturer has already supplied Thailand with its Gripen C/D, the precursor of the next-generation Gripen-E platform. Dassault, which signed a contract for 36 Rafale multi-role fighters with India in 2016, continues to eye opportunities in the Indian market.

The Saab Gripen, Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon are competing with US-made aircraft on multiple fronts. Saab is vying with Boeing to provide the Indian Navy with 57 fighter jets. Though it is still in a concept stage, Saab has offered its Gripen-M, the maritime variant of the Gripen-E combat aircraft. For its part, the US contractor pitched the F/A-18 Super Hornet.

For this navy tender, Dassault proposed its Rafale-M fighter, and Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG its MiG-29K. Saab also appears to be in the running to sell 100 single-engine fighters to India for the needs of its air force. Lockheed Martin’s F-16 will likely be a contender in this bidding process, which still has to be officially launched by the Indian government.

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is said to be looking to Western-made fighters for the renewal of its air fleet. In this case, there would be a competition between European aircraft and Lockheed Martin’s F-16V – Jakarta is also considering the acquisition of 11 Sukhoi Su-35 fighters from Russia’s Rostec Corporation.

Malaysia is seeking to bolster its aerospace capabilities as well. Budget constraints have pushed the Malaysian government to shift its focus to second-hand warplanes such as F/A-18 Hornets from Kuwait or Australia. Kuala Lumpur initially looked for high-end fighters such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, Saab Gripen and Boeing Super Hornet.

Further, US and European defense producers will likely battle for the export market of maritime patrol aircraft. Many Asian countries are concerned about China’s expanding underwater fleet. As a result, they are attempting to boost their anti-submarine capabilities. Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon is likely the best platform on sale, but it is very expensive. South Korea is considering it, for instance, but is also interested in Saab’s Swordfish maritime patrol plane, which is said to be far more affordable.

Beyond commercial gains

Arms sales cannot be seen only through the prism of commercial gains. They also have diplomatic implications. European countries such as Britain and France are evidently using defense-related exports to deepen their relations with a number of Indo-Pacific nations. Both London and Paris have time and again expressed their will to play a more active role in the area, voicing support for Washington’s quest for a rules-based order in Asia.

Most Indo-Pacific recipients of European and US arms supplies are allies and partners of Washington and the European Union (Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan), or potential friends in a confrontation with China (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and India).

In a sense, free-trade competition in the region between US and European defense contractors is helping countries at odds with China over territorial issues improve their own military capacities. That means Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the (defense) market is working for the geopolitical balance of the Indo-Pacific space.

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