Wednesday, February 23, 2005

China - a political agenda

In the current edition of DefenseNews, two authors, Gordon Adams and Guy Ben-Ari suggest that the Bush administration could kick-start the trans-Atlantic relationship by improving co-operation in defence technology.

As with the recent award of the contract for the 23-strong fleet of US presidential helicopters to a European firm, this could pay dividends in bringing European defence industries closer to their counterparts in the US, with a beneficial political fall-out.

The two authors have some credibility, Gordon Adams being the director of Security Policy Studies at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, while Guy Ben-Ari is a consultant with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and they make a powerful case.

Apart from the political benefits, they argue that the US would also benefit form more open market, from cost savings to technological synergies, together with enhanced alliance interoperability. Furthermore, the pair say, European manufacturers have much to offer.

One area of collaboration which Adams and Ben-Ari identify as particularly ripe for cooperation is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), both surveillance and armed, and their sensors. Many European countries possess substantial technological knowledge and experience in this area, including engines, airframe design and stealth technology.

In other areas, they consider European firms also considerable expertise, some of which have fearsome descriptions, such as: active, electronically scanned array radar; hyperspectral imaging; lightweight synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indicators relevant for sensor payloads – terms which to an average reader mean very little.

A trans-Atlantic initiative, they argue, could open a much-needed dialogue and build on a number of successful projects already carried out inder the aegis of Nato.

Furthermore, say the authors, such technical co-operation across the Atlantic will be necessary for future coalition operations to be assembled and carried out successfully. Without this, of course, different forces will not be able to operate together, even if the political will is there.

On the face of it, this is an intriguing thesis. Given US willingness to promote co-operation, this is indeed one way of ensuring that Nato allies stay on side.

And, while France is looking to China to increase its arms sales, the Chinese defence budget for 2004 was around $22 billion – although the real expenditure is estimated to be in the order of $50 and $70 billion – compared with the US budget of just over $500 billion.

On the face of it, US sales are potentially far more valuable and since selling to the Chinese risks exclusion from the US, it would seem to make more economic sense for European manufacturers to concentrate on the US. That is certainly the line the UK’s BAE Systems seems to be taking, and Rolls Royce may well follow.

Thus, if there is little economic sense in European arms manufacturers pursuing the lifting of the EU's arms embargo on China, there would seem to be another reason why the EU is so determined to lift it.

The clue lies in Chirac, who yesterday described China as the European Union's "strategic partner". Here, there is a profound political agenda, and that rather precludes the US looking for greater co-operation with its European "allies".

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