Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Europe’s largest aeronautics and space company, as well as one of its largest defense contractors, appears to share deep ties with the Chinese military-industrial complex, which a reputable US-based consultancy assesses as “carrying outsize risk”.
A Horizon Advisory analysis, titled “Flying with the enemy”, warns that Airbus’ current engagement in China entails significant ties to the Asian country’s military and military-civil fusion apparatus, which manifests in the form of supply dependencies, technology sharing, and research and development cooperation.
The pan-European industrial giant is the largest airliner and turbine helicopter manufacturer in the world, plays a key role in the European space program through ArianeGroup, its joint venture with Safran, and is a partner in the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium, with plans to also participate as a key partner in developing Europe’s first sixth-generation combat jet and accompanying drone fleets, the Future Combat Air System.
WIth relations faltering between Brussels and Beijing over serious human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang province and the rapid deterioration of civil liberties in its Hong Kong province, a growing number of European policymakers are calling for reducing the bloc’s dependence on Chinese technology and resources.
The latest round of tensions between Brussels and Beijing started in March last year, with the EU coordinating with the UK a list of Xinjiang officials and entities to be put under sanctions for “arbitrary detentions” and “systemic violations of freedom of religion” for the Muslim Uyghur minority living in Xinjiang. Nearly all international human rights organizations believe Beijing is operating internment camps where Uyghurs are being forcibly “re-educated”, with some western governments going as far as describing the practice as “genocide”.
China responded by introducing sanctions against 10 EU politicians, five members of the European Parliament, and its human rights subcommittee, a move which the EP has declared “not founded in international law”. In a counter-move, the EP voted in May last year to halt the ratification process of the planned EU-China investment deal until it lifts its sanctions.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine and increased belligerence, Beijing is demonstrating towards Taiwan, which China considers a part of its own territory, the EU is beginning to seriously reexamine its ties and dependencies on China’s industry and technology.
The ties between China and Airbus, despite its importance to the European high-tech sector, have largely gone under the radar, according to the analysts working for the Horizon Advisory, even as Airbus’ airliner business has overtaken its largest rival Boeing in China.
The analysis lists a number of “red flags” stemming from the cooperation between Airbus and its industrial partners in China. The company is engaged in partnerships – including technology sharing – with a number of military, military-civil fusion, and government entities, such as the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).
Airbus currently holds a 5-percent stake in AviChina, a civilian AVIC subsidiary listed in Hong Kong, but the Chinese conglomerate’s seven other subsidiaries are designated as “military end-users” by the US Commerce Department.
The analysts also warn that Airbus is selling both products and information, such as satellite imagery, to the Chinese military, military-civil fusion, and government entities, creating a risk of providing support to the Chinese Communist Party’s power projection and surveillance capabilities. Another problem is Airbus’ growing market dependence on China, which potentially threatens to grant Beijing leverage over Airbus’ business, production, and technological choices.
Airbus currently has ten legal entities registered in China, five of which are joint ventures with State-owned or state-affiliated entities such as AVIC, its subsidiaries, Capital Operation Group, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The European company, headquartered in Leiden, Blagnac, Madrid, and Hamburg, also engaged in technology sharing with Chinese entities – launching its China Innovation Center in 2018, its first such center in Asia and only second after one in Silicon Valley. Analysts warn that one of the five main focus areas – in-flight connectivity – has direct military relevance. This area includes both 5G ground-to-air connectivity and Beidou, Beijing’s alternative to GPS and Galileo and a core pillar of the country’s military-civil fusion program.
Airbus defends its position by stressing that all of its relationships with Chinese companies are fully compliant with all European and international laws and regulations, especially in regard to the existing arms embargo on China. Airbus notes it is exclusively focused on civil aerospace and services.