China's J-10 fighter jets perform during the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, on November 1, 2016. Photo: China Daily/via Reuters
China's J-10 fighter jets perform during the 11th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, on November 1, 2016. Photo: China Daily/via Reuters

They are the standard bearers of Europe’s progressive social democracy, often at the forefront of international humanitarian efforts, track-two diplomacy and conflict resolution initiatives. But Nordic states (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland) are also becoming among the world’s most dynamic arms exporters, with growing shares of their defense-related sales ending up in the Indo-Pacific region, thus contributing to its ongoing militarization.

Nordic nations are working to consolidate and integrate their military-industrial sectors while keeping a careful eye on expansion of overseas arm sales. Asia-Pacific is not the first target of this push at the moment, but it is steadily rising as recipient of military goods from Northern European defense companies. These are indeed used to deal with clients such as India, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

The Swedish giant

To top all that off, there is Sweden’s Saab aeronautics, which is trying to sell its next generation Gripen multi-role combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force, a bid that includes transfer of technology and the establishment of a production and assembly line in that country. Hakan Buskhe, CEO and President of Saab, upheld the Swedish company’s interest in the Indian market during his recent visit to India, where he attended the first meeting of the India-Sweden Business Leaders Roundtable.

Delhi is committed to modernizing its air fleet and signed an US$8.8 billion contract to acquire 36 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation in September. The Indian government recently invited a number of foreign manufacturers to present proposals to produce 200 single engine fighters in-country under the “Make in India” scheme, but the competition is apparently limited to Saab and United States defense giant Lockheed Martin.

Saab is not new to fighters sales in Asia. In fact, it provided Thailand with 12 Gripen C/D fighters and is discussing with the Thai government a further order for this aircraft, which is the precursor of the brand-new Gripen-E platform. Bangkok has been Sweden’s second-largest defense client in the 2010-2015 stint, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In Southeast Asia, Saab is also focusing on the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia as potential buyers of Gripen jets.

New realities at hand

Among Nordic states, Sweden has the lion’s share in the transfer of arms and weapon systems to Indo-Pacific customers; it stood at some US$2.5 billion from 2000 to 2015, the fourth-largest amount throughout Europe. The Asian-Pacific market portion of all other Nordic defense exporters is still negligible compared to Stockholm’s during the same period, with Norway’s arm sales at US$92 billion, Denmark at US$51 billion and Finland at US$6 billion, but it is increasing.

Since September 2015, Norwegian firm Kongsberg Defense Systems has been cooperating with BAE Australia to realize a missile with new seeker capacities for the US-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; Danish defense manufacturer Terma is teaming up with India’s Nova Integrated Systems to sale surface surveillance radars to the Indian navy; next year, the Australian army will evaluate the AMV35, an armoured modular vehicle for combat reconnaissance operations that is manufactured by Finnish defense producer Patria Oyj in combination with BAE Systems Australia.

Nordic defense collaboration is also reaching out to the Baltic states, which are making progress in the military high-tech domain. Estonian defence operator Milrem, which is partnering with Singapore Technologies Kinetics to develop the combat unmanned ground vehicle THeMIS, has been showing a glimpse of this potential.

An expanding market

Public opinion in Northern Europe is increasingly critical of governments selling arms to warring parties or countries whose democratic and human rights records are often questioned (albeit this accusation is mostly aimed at weapon transfers to Middle Eastern and Central Asian regimes). But, as economic crises keep biting in Europe, Nordic states have no intention of staying out of the always lucrative defense business, even though this hits at the very basis of their much-touted “ethical foreign policy.”

Still, the perceived threat of Russia’s renewed geopolitical assertiveness in East and North Europe has sparked a multiplier effect on the growth of Nordic and Baltic military-industrial complexes; Asia-Pacific is now a breeding ground for Northern European defense enterprises eager to place their items abroad, given that increased instability from the Indo-Pakistani border to the Strait of Taiwan has expanded the spectrum of possible acquirers.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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