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We live in an interconnected world, with global communication faster than ever before, making the world a smaller and more complicated place. Up until the end of the Cold War, in a strategic context life was very simple. There were two superpowers, the US and the USSR, and right in the middle was Europe, effectively divided into two between NATO Europe in the West and the Warsaw Pact in the East.

In many respects everything was focussed on Europe, with both sides deploying large numbers of troops and vast quantities of materiel either side of the Inner German Border (IGB). This was always assumed to where the great clash of the long-expected World War III would happen. While this potential situation had its downsides, it did at least place Europe at the centre of affairs.

The German Navy frigate Bayern (F217) transits the Atlantic on its ‘Indo-Pacific Deployment 2021,’ by December 2021 the ship was entering the South China Sea. This is another illustration of growing European interest in strategic stability in Asia.
Credit: Sascha Sent/Bundeswehr

During the Cold War the European strategic calculus was defined by the danger of conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but it did not mean that the complete strategic environment as seen by Europe’s leaders and their military forces was totally focussed on Europe. The Arab-Israeli war of October 1973 provided an obvious lesson that events in the wider world could have a decisive influence on the European strategic situation. The 1973 Arab oil embargo illustrated to many in Europe that for all of their wealth and power, they remained vulnerable to events outside their control.

The Arab oil embargo would have a dramatic economic impact on Europe, the sudden spike in the price of oil would bring the post-1945 economic boom to an end. European reactions to this were interesting, but one common theme was increased diplomatic engagement with the Middle East. For Europe engagement in the Middle East was an imperative, the oil had to keep flowing. At the same time the Soviets had to be kept out of the Middle East oil states, so that they could not block oil supplies to the West. From the other side, many of the things that Middle Eastern countries wanted to buy were in Europe or the US.

While the Middle East appeared to be relatively stable after 1973, the situation in Asia was much less clear-cut. The last US troops had left the Republic of South Vietnam (RSVN) in March 1973, but security guarantees had been extended to the RSVN and the US would still provide military aid and materiel support. A ceasefire had been agreed in Laos by the US-supported Royalist Forces and the Pathet Lao, while in Cambodia the Lon Nol government continued fighting against the Khmer Rouge insurgency. While direct US military involvement in Indochina might have come to an end, the wars would continue.

JS Izumo (DDH 183) of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the US for the RIMPAC 2022 exercise, is described as a ‘helicopter destroyer,’ it is in reality a helicopter carrier. Elsewhere in Asia both China and India are building full-size aircraft carriers and the Republic of Korea intends to. Asia is a sophisticated strategic environment.
Credit: US Navy

The US remained the primary security guarantor for the Republic of Korea (ROK), in the face a continuing existential threat from North Korea (DPRK). At this point the ROK was still a developing country, its economic breakout would come much later. China was still mired in the self-induced chaos of the Cultural Revolution, whilst remaining profoundly suspicious of the Soviet Union and its motives. Despite this, both sides could support North Vietnam as well as the insurgencies in Cambodia and Laos, sending arms and assistance.

The US troop withdrawal from Southeast Asia was an immense concern to other regional states who feared for their own security. Elsewhere the British were completing their withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’, the majority of British troops having left Singapore by the end of 1971, and all would be gone by March 1976, with Australia withdrawing its last troop presence from Singapore at the end of 1975. With a few exceptions the West appeared to be abandoning Asia.

An End and a Beginning

On 17 April 1975 Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, then on 30 April Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), marking the end of the RSVN, after this the end in Laos was inevitable and the Pathet Lao took control. On the surface it would seem that Soviet-supported forces had triumphed, totally changing the strategic picture in Southeast Asia and delivering a humiliating defeat to the US. The 1976 US Presidential Election would see a win for Jimmy Carter seemingly further proof that the US was retreating from its role as a security guarantor. As for Europe, they had very little to offer in terms of security for Asia, and on the other hand, as much of Asia appeared to be in chaos, there was very little to interest Europe.

Then an event happened that would change the future of Asia and the world – on 9 September 1976, Mao Zedong died. The next month saw the arrest of the leaders of the radical Gang of Four, this solidified the position of Hua Guofeng as Chinese leader. Then in December 1978 at the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, held in Beijing, Deng Xiaoping sidelined Hua Guofeng and became the paramount Chinese leader. The visit of US President Nixon to China in 1972 might have ended China’s isolation, and the death of Mao along with the fall of the Gang of Four diverted China from the ideological path it has been on since the 1960s, but it was the arrival of Deng Xiaoping and his ‘Four Modernisations’ policy that would start China on the way to its leading world position.

German Air Force Eurofighter aircraft of Luftwaffengeschwader 74 refuels from an Airbus A330 of the European Multinational Multirole Tanker Transport (MRTT) Unit as a part of Rapid Pacific 2022, where the Lufwaffe deployed to take part in the Australian Pitch Black air exercise.
Credit: Christian Timmig/Bundeswehr

The end of the 1970s contained numerous critical developments, Vietnam invaded Cambodia at the end of 1978 to put an end to the Khmer Rouge, and would finally withdraw their troops in 1989. The cost of that conflict and the ending of Soviet support would force Vietnam to embark on an economic modernisation programme and gradually open up to the world. Mention should also be made of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the withdrawal of Soviet troops between 1988 and 1989. Illustrating that overt involvement in Afghanistan was never a good idea and contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Iran’s status as a source of stability in the Middle East began to unravel in January 1978 with the start of the Iranian Revolution. By January 1979 the Shah was gone, the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, and the Islamic Republic was born. Today the Islamic Republic is a source of instability in the Middle East and beyond, it is important to Asia, in that it is a major oil supplier to China. It is likely only a matter of time Iran before becomes a nuclear power, at which point it will have more freedom of action in a strategic context.

Nuclear proliferation has been widespread in Asia. Apart from China, which has the full array of nuclear delivery systems, India tested its first nuclear device in May 1974, Pakistan tested its first device in May 1998 and the North Korea tested its first device in October 2006. Areas of concern here include ongoing tensions between China and India, and between India and Pakistan. North Korea is a special case, possession of nuclear weapons provides them with a credible deterrent against hostile actions.

Issues that we have today that existed in the 1970s include Iran, continuity of oil supply, nuclear proliferation, tension between India and Pakistan, tension on the Korean peninsula, Afghanistan and, of course, the future of China. Amidst all of that Asia has emerged as a powerful economic force and is an area of increasing economic and strategic importance for Europe.

HMS Astute, this nuclear attack submarine is the lead ship of a class of seven SSN (two currently in build) for the Royal Navy. British SSN technology could play a major role in the Royal Australian Navy SSN programme, a capability to be delivered under the AUKUS security arrangement between Australia, Britain and the US.
Credit: Royal Navy

Where Are We Now?

The best measure of Asia’s importance can be gained from the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) generated by their national economies. According to the World Bank in the Top Ten world economies China is at number two, Japan at number three, India at number six and Korea at number ten. Back in the 1970s it was nearly inconceivable that there would be four Asian countries amongst the top ten world economies. Expanding the group to slightly beyond the top ten would also bring in Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand, demonstrating the continuing development of Asia’s economic might.

Looking at things from an economic perspective, Europe needs Asia as a market for its goods and services, as well as for its investments in Europe. Toyota is a good example of this – there are Toyota factories in four European countries, plus an R&D centre and European headquarters in Belgium. Eight out of ten Toyota cars sold in Europe are made in Europe. Another example is Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) who are now owned by the Tata Group of India, they have facilities in the UK and Ireland, as well as in Hungary and Slovakia, with contract manufacturing in Austria.

There is certainly a commonality of economic interest between Europe and Asia – Europe needs Asia’s markets just as much as Asia needs Europe’s markets. Asia does enjoy some advantages in important sectors such as semiconductors, with more than 75% of global semiconductors coming from Asia. The primary source is Taiwan, which produces around 56% of global supply, followed by Korea at 15% and China at 6%. Japan is also a noteworthy semiconductor manufacturer, but its market share has declined in recent years. Output outside Asia meanwhile has declined in relative terms. The US, once the world leader in semiconductor manufacture, now has a global market share of only 7%.

Despite not having much market share itself, Europe remains critical to the semiconductor manufacturing process, with Dutch Company ASML being the world’s only supplier of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) photolithography machines, which are used in the manufacture of high-end semiconductors in the 3-5 nm process node range. In turn, ASML’s EUV photolithography machines are dependent on extremely precise mirrors produced by German optics company Carl Zeiss.

Semiconductors are not only central to the automotive industry and consumer goods, they are also essential for the aerospace and defence industry. As such, ensuring security of supply has both economic and strategic implications for Europe.


Given Europe’s economic dependence on Asia how can Europe help to guarantee peace and security in Asia? Europe’s appetite for significant out-of-area military commitments has not recovered from Afghanistan and Iraq, so troop deployments on the ground are unlikely. Air and naval forces could be a European deterrence-based contribution to Asian security, but realistically, the potential threat environment is beyond Europe’s capabilities and political will at this point in time.

The most constructive and least-risky thing Europe can do is offer training, advice and assistance where it is appropriate. Europe can make a real contribution to friendly nations in Asia and security in that region. It can achieve this through joint defence equipment programmes with Asian nations, in advanced combat aircraft for example, that can enhance the defensive capabilities of friendly nations. These will be partnerships of equals and be to the benefit of both sides. Europe cannot make a serious contribution in terms of direct military involvement in Asia, but helping Asian nations to enhance their own defence capabilities will help bring stability to the Asian security matrix.

David Saw