EU defence chief warns coronavirus has weakened security

EU defence chief warns coronavirus has weakened security

Claudio Graziano says bloc can do more on technology and maritime co-operation in Asia

The EU’s defence chief has warned that the coronavirus pandemic has weakened the ability of militaries to respond to security threats, calling for a greater focus on technology and expanding international maritime co-operation.

General Claudio Graziano, chair of the EU Military Committee, said that in addition to reduced training missions because of the pandemic, there was a longer-term risk that countries that have suffered a bigger economic hit would cut their defence budgets.

“We have the double duty to accomplish the mission and to protect the people [from Covid-19],” Graziano told the Financial Times.

Graziano, who leads the committee of defence chiefs from the 27 EU member states, made a brief visit to South Korea against a backdrop of rising concerns over security in Asia.

This includes the crisis in Myanmar following the overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government in February as well as brewing tensions over China’s disputed claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea and Kim Jong Un’s expanding arsenal of nuclear weapons. Beijing sent 25 warplanes into Taipei’s air defence identification zone on Monday, the largest incursion this year, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence. 

Defence budgets across Europe continued to increase in 2020, up almost 5.6 per cent on the previous year. But they are likely to weaken in 2021, according to defence publication Janes. Global defence spending rose 1.9 per cent to $1.9tn in 2020, but Janes has also forecast a “noticeable slowdown” in expenditure this year.

Graziano stressed that the EU should focus on technological research and development in response to the potential threats posed by cyber and hybrid warfare, which involves political and economic aggression. He also warned of the future use of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence.

He added that the EU was moving in the right direction with the 2017 launch of a multibillion-dollar fund for military equipment and tech investment, “even if not as fast as I would like”.

“There is a clear understanding that we have to protect our technology, develop our technology and to maintain our technology superiority . . . If you want to be credible, you have to invest the right amount of money, particularly research and development,” the Italian four-star general said.

Graziano also acknowledged the Chinese military’s “very long-term planning” and technological ambitions.

Nato is increasingly focusing on Beijing’s expanding weaponry and cyber capabilities.

Under Xi Jinping, China has pursued its most sweeping military reform and modernisation in decades, with the aim of making the People’s Liberation Army a “world-class” force capable of winning wars anywhere in the world by 2050.

“That poses a security issue for all the world, and of course also for European Union, already now that we have to deal with in the short- to medium-[term] perspective,” Graziano said.

Non-Asian countries have taken an increasingly close interest in disputed territories as the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, which are crucial strategic chokepoints for global trade but also loom as flashpoints of tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Graziano suggested that the EU could play a greater role in maritime security with partners in Asia via a “more systematic presence”.

But he also noted areas of co-ordination between EU members and China, including counter-piracy efforts. “It is important to maintain China as the priority for the solution to global and regional challenges,” he said.

Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels and Eleanor Olcott in Taipei

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