British diplomats warned palm oil row could harm Malaysian defence deals

Emails show officials were concerned EU vote could hit a deal for fighter jets manufactured by BAE Sytems

British government officials warned a proposed EU ban on palm oil in biofuels could harm UK defence sales to Malaysia, specifically Typhoon fighter jets, according to government emails obtained by Unearthed.

The correspondence reveals that the British high commission in Kuala Lumpur even expected Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to lobby Theresa May personally on the issue at last month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In the event, Razak did not attend the meeting in London, a Number 10 spokeswoman told Unearthed.

Correspondence between the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the British high commission, reveals British officials were concerned that EU moves to ban palm oil in biofuels could result in Malaysian trade reprisals against the UK.

MEPs voted in January to stop palm oil in biofuels counting towards countries renewables targets, citing environmental concerns. The move sparked a furious response from the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce most of the world’s palm oil.

The debate over palm oil is playing a significant role in the run-up to Malaysia’s general election, which will be held tomorrow.

On the morning of 5 February, an official at the British high commission in Malaysia sent an email warning that the EU decision was “a big issue for Malaysia and, if not handled correctly, has the potential to impact on bilateral trade, particularly defence sales (Typhoon)”.

As well as stating that Razak was expected lobby May on the issue, the diplomat’s email states that “we should expect every minister engaging with Malaysia to be lobbied on palm oil”.

In a later email that morning, an MoD official wrote that the ban “could affect our bilateral relationship and potentially defence sales”.

Reuters reported in February that BAE Systems would provide Malaysia with a UK government-backed financing deal if it decided to replace its fleet of fighter jets with the Eurofighter Typhoon. Malaysia has reportedly been weighing up whether to buy the French made Rafale jet or the Typhoon for years, as it looks to replace its fleet of Russian MiG-29s.

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