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Wavering dominance

In its role as an arms supplier to South and Southeast Asia, Russia is fast losing traditionally-held ground to the US and China even as India struggles to break into the market

Wavering dominance

It is interesting to note that the international arms trade in the South and Southeast Asian regions is fast getting narrowed down between two major suppliers, the United States and the People's Republic of China. Russia, traditionally a major player, is steadily losing ground to the two more aggressive arms traders — the US and China. For the US, raising arms exports to India appears to be more important than striking a bilateral trade deal between the two countries. This became amply clear during the recent two-day visit of India by President Donald Trump. At the very beginning of his trip, Trump announced in Ahmedabad that he and Prime Minister Narendra Modi would sign off on a $3.5 billion

arms deal, which would see the sale of 24 Sikorsky MH-60R Sea Hawk multi-role helicopters for the Indian Navy and six Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters for the Indian Army. However, the two leaders failed to agree to an anticipated general trade deal.

The actual size of the US arms deals with India this year is expected to go up to well over $5.3 billion if one takes into account the February 7 authorisation of a potential $1.7 billion sale of IADWS short-range air defence systems to protect the Indian capital region. This is probably the biggest US arms sale commitment to India in a single month. Incidentally, the US recorded a massive growth in its arms exports to India, over 550 per cent in the 2013-17 period compared with the previous five years. The US is India's second-largest arms supplier.

Traditionally, Russia has been the biggest suppliers of weapons to India. But, its dominance is depleting. Russia's arms export to India fell by a whopping 42 per cent between 2009-2013 and 2014-18. Russia accounted for 58 per cent of India's total arms imports in 2014-2018, compared with 76 per cent in 2009-2013, says the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report, Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018. Israel, the US and France all increased their arms exports to India in the 2014-18 period. Russia seems to be losing its arms market in the region, yielding ground mostly to China. Interestingly, China has emerged as the fifth largest arms exporter, with exports rising by 38 per cent between 2008-12 and 2013-17. A majority of these weapons have been procured by countries in India's neighbourhood.

For instance, Pakistan no longer depends on US arms for its military. China now accounts for almost 70 per cent of Pakistan's arms import. China is also helping Pakistan build an arms manufacturing base to supply to other friendly countries in the region. Pakistan's imports from the US dropped by 76 per cent in 2013-17 compared with 2008-12. Thanks to China, Pakistan is emerging

as a manufacturer-exporter of arms in Asia. Next to Pakistan, Bangladesh has become a heavy purchaser of Chinese weapons. Between 2008 and 2018, China provided $1.93-billion worth weapons to Bangladesh. This constitutes 71.8 per cent of Bangladesh's military acquisitions over this period, making Beijing far and away from the biggest supplier of arms to Dhaka, says SIPRI.

Nearly 70 per cent of China's arms exports went to Asia and Oceania in the last five years. About 20 per cent went to Africa and 6.1 per cent to West Asia. Since 2007, China's top arms export destinations by total units were Pakistan (6.57 billion units), Bangladesh (1.99 billion units) and Myanmar (1.28 billion units), reports SIPRI. All three countries are part of China's global development strategy — the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Barring India, China is dominating the arms trade in the entire region. China has made massive progress in arms manufacturing and exports while its own arms imports are steadily declining. While India continues to depend on imports for its arms requirements, China's arms imports fell by 19 per cent between 2008-12 and 2013-17. After Beijing joined hands with Islamabad on counter-terrorism initiatives, China's annual arms sales to Pakistan surged to an annual average of around $700 million. In March 2018, Beijing announced the sale of sophisticated optical tracking systems that could be used for nuclear missiles with multiple warheads. This announcement came just weeks after India successfully tested the Agni-V long-range ballistic missile in mid-January. Other purchases highlight close levels of collaboration between China and Pakistan, such as the jointly-developed JF-17 aircraft and China's ongoing construction of the Type 054AP class warship for the Pakistani Navy.

India has a long way to go before it is capable of manufacturing world-class lethal weapons. The country is, however, doing well in manufacturing and exporting conventional weapons and accessories. India has set a tall export target of $5 billion worth of military hardware in the next 5 years from the current level of nearly $1.5 billion. India exports conventional defence equipment and safety gears to some 42 nations, including the US, Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, South Africa, Sweden, Azerbaijan, Seychelles, Estonia, Indonesia, Guinea and the Philippines.

However, India continues to be the world's second-largest importer of major arms accounting for 9.5 per cent of the global total. The country's arms import trend is expected to continue for several years to come even as China expands its strategic arms control in the region. Western arms exporters, led by the US, is out to exploit the situation.

Russia, the world's second-largest arms exporter, seems to be losing out to its rivals, mainly on account of delay in delivery schedules. Interestingly, in the Global Firepower List 2018, third-ranked China sharply led India in terms of active military personnel with its 21.83 lakh personnel as against India's 13.62 lakh. India's military ranks fourth on a global index of 136 countries, based on their military capabilities, only behind the US, Russia and China.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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