Written by Michal Thim.

If you have US$1.7 billion to spare, you could be in with a shot of owning two Mistral-class amphibious attack ships (aka helicopter carriers) that France built for the Russian navy. Buyers will obtain two 21,000-ton multi-purpose warships that can perform a wide range of missions, including amphibious landings, anti-submarine and anti-piracy patrols supported by 16-30 helicopters on board, and able to play a role as a command and communication centre, or as a hospital with state of the art medical facilities assisting disaster relief operations.

The Mistral’s versatility should be very attractive to a number of potential buyers, and France may not have great problems selling them. That is unless Russia’s claim that France cannot sell or use the ships without Russia’s approval is correct. Moreover, since both ships were specifically adapted for Russia, whoever is interested in purchasing them will have to also add the costs of retrofitting the vessels to meet their needs.

For Russia, interest in Mistral-class was an open admission of the limitations of its own shipbuilding industry. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and financial problems of second half of the 1990s, many ongoing projects were cancelled and ships in final stages of completion were scrapped or left to rust. Russia under Vladimir Putin seems eager to revive the glory of Soviet shipbuilding, including plans to build an aircraft carrier. However, it lacks the know-how required for the kind of multi-purpose capabilities offered by the Mistral.

Russia’s acquisition of the two Mistrals could have been relevant for Northeast Asian security as the Kremlin planned to deploy both vessels (named after the cities of Vladivostok and Sevastopol) as part of the Pacific Fleet based in Vladivostok. Whether the rationale for this deployment was checking on Japan or China is now irrelevant. The odyssey of the two Mistrals from French shipyards to Russian ports ended up prematurely following Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine that resulted in a wide array of sanctions, an arms sales ban included. At one point, Paris insisted that standing contracts would be upheld, however, developments in Ukraine saw no improvement, and the sale went south (though a final decision has yet to be made).

And this is where China comes into play. Or to be more precise, that’s where the speculation about China begins.

The speculation began following a French navy visit to Shanghai, which included a Lafayette-class corvette and a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship. The Taiwan-based Want China Times (WCT), referring to Chinese military bloggers, reported on the possibility of the sale of the two vessels to China on May 10. Soon enough, the WCT report was picked up by Russian government-run Sputnik News and other news outlets. The Moscow Times editorialised about “4 Things France Can Do With Its Russian-Ordered Mistral Warships.” On the Western side, the Business Insider and Newsweek reported in a similar fashion. What was striking about all those reports was their failure to mention the EU-wide sanctions imposed on China after the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4, 1989. Not all media displayed this ignorance. The Diplomat magazine was among the honourable few that at least mentioned the EU arms sales embargo, although only in passing (a follow-up article corrects this omission and provides an excellent overview of the embargo issue and the broader context that makes the sale impossible).

Granted, the embargo was ambiguously worded, and in the absence of an enforcement mechanism it is up to individual member states to decide how and if to uphold it. Several member states, France included, have sold so-called “dual-use” items (including jet engines, helicopters and radars) to China, exploiting the grey area. A report by the Swedish Defence Research Agency in 2010 notes that as a result of the dual-use policy, EU arms sales to China have in fact increased since 1989:

EU countries’ military exports to China, excluding Hong Kong and Macao, reached a total of 134 million euros in 2006, according to the EU Annual Report on Arms Exports. However, the real export figure is higher, since certain countries do not provide data. On top of actual exports, EU member states in 2006 issued licences for arms exports to China worth 292 million euros. During 2007 reported exports were somewhat lower, at 92 million euros, and the value of licences issued was 210 million euros. In 2007, France accounted for 94 percent of licences and 99 percent of exports to China. Europe’s main exporters of military equipment to China also include the U.K., Austria, Italy and Germany.

However, the same report also notes that France’s position is consistent with the approach of other EU members:

France’s approach is that the EU arms embargo covers lethal military equipment and major weapon platforms. However, exports of non-lethal systems and dual-use items are permitted, e.g. naval and aircraft electronics and platforms, optoelectronics, transmitters, radar and other equipment for non-combat use.

Oddly enough, Stockholm’s interpretation of the embargo also includes a ban on selling weapons to Taiwan.

The possible sale of two very capable warships to Russia was controversial even before Moscow decided to annex Crimea and send ‘volunteers’ on ‘vacation’ to Eastern Ukraine. Following the 2008 Russia-Georgia war over separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, critics argued that next time Moscow decided to teach smaller post-Soviet republics a lesson, it could be delivered from aboard newly acquired (and made in the EU) helicopter carriers. France nevertheless proceeded with the deal until it became politically impossible to deliver the weapons. It does not require much imagination to see what would follow should Paris ever seriously consider a sale to China.

First of all, the U.S. would likely express grave concerns over the deal, which would no longer be about selling Western weapons to Russia only for it to turn those on its neighbours. Rather, a sale to China would have obvious implications for the security of U.S. allies (and states considered friendly to the EU) like Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines. For better or worse, France does not have a stellar history of listening to Uncle Sam; however, none of the previous disagreements involved selling major weapon platforms that could be used against U.S. treaty allies. On top of the bilateral dispute, France would also indirectly undermine the EU’s position in negotiations of the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free-trade agreement similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

This is not the only problem that Paris would face. Consensus among EU members is difficult to achieve, and the EU has been mocked for its “lack of resolve.” However, when consensus does exist, it is extremely difficult to challenge it. France was among the EU members who in the past pushed for lifting the embargo. However, if negotiations fail to change the policy, Paris will be hard put to challenge the EU consensus by violating a long-standing policy. Tweaking the embargo by selling dual-use items is one thing, selling major combat-ready platforms is something completely different. Even in the absence of an embargo, the sale of two warships would be in violation of the EU’s Code of Conduct on Arms Exports (see specifically criteria four, five and six). Among the key EU members, Germany is a strong supporter of keeping the ban and the reality of European politics is that while it may be feasible to occasionally ignore Washington, one certainly would think twice before upsetting Berlin. A one-time deal simply is not worth all the trouble. And that is why, for all we know, France is not considering the sale to China.

Thus, the Philippines, Japan and Taiwan need not worry about a sudden boost of China’s amphibious capability courtesy of France. However, that is about the only thing that China’s neighbours can be relaxed about.

With Beijing’s island-building spree and salami-slicing approach, the regional security environment has been deteriorating, and it may not be too long before the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, operating from its new bases, starts to enforce a South China Sea air-defence identification zone (ADIZ). Part of the speculation surrounding a Mistral sale is based on a correct assessment that Beijing could definitely use such amphibious capabilities in the South China Sea and of its general efforts to transform the PLA Navy into an ocean-going naval force. However, rather than rely on foreign sales, Beijing is more likely to build its own helicopter carriers. Unlike the Russian shipbuilding industry, which is in dire need of re-inventing itself in the midst of fiscal uncertainty, Chinese shipbuilders can build on decades of incremental improvements.

News of new weapon platforms and possible arms sales are inherently prone to speculation (the sales of Russian-made S-400 air-defence systems and Su-35 fighters to China come to mind). The lesson in all this is that media should not read too much into friendly port visits and beware of overly imaginative Chinese military bloggers.

Michal Thim is a Ph.D. candidate in the Taiwan Studies Program at the China Policy Institute, and a Research Fellow at the Prague-based think-tank Association for International Affairs. He tweets @michalthim. This post appeared first at Thinking Taiwan. Image Credit: CC by dmytrok/Flickr.