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Subcontinent’s brothers in arms

Subcontinent’s brothers in arms
The stellar entry of Chinese Defence firms in the global arms market has been creating ripples among the Czars of the arms bazaar. But the slow reacting Indian defence establishment has not taken the note that China besides investing in Ports around India, has now moved to directly arming its neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to the teeth.

According to the latest report of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China’s defence companies produced and sold 40 per cent of the world’s arms, ammunition and weaponry in 2012. The total global sales of arms and military services across the world valued 395 billion dollars sans the figure of 268 billion dollars for the Chinese firms. This makes Chinese share to be at a staggering 40.2 per cent of the total global arms production and sales.

The increasing value addition and sophistication of the Chinese defence industry came to the world’s attention in 2013 as Turkey – a NATO member - opted for a Long Range Missile Defence System made by a little known China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corporation to supply the long-range missile defence system. While making the selection, Turkey rejected the product of established American firms even though it would have been compatible to existent defence systems. The military-industrial establishment was shocked as the country is facing US sanctions for ‘selling technologies to help Iran, Syria and North Korea to develop unconventional weapons’.

The China’s rise as an armament giant is threatening to tip the balance in the South Asian region fast. The countries in India’s neighbourhood have played a key role Beijing’s rise as a major arm supplier – a reality which the Indian defence establishment has been trying to resolve with its classic Ostrich approach. Exports make the niche indigenous defence market economically viable for a country, especially one seeking a transformation to a major power and seeking self-reliance in the area. This has been a major problem for the Indian private sector seeking to proliferate in the defence sector but refrains from doing so as the limited market does not commensurate with the high costs involved in the Research and Development of Defence Technology. Pakistan is Beijing’s leading customer with 55 per cent of its arms imports supplied by China. From 250 JF-17 fighter jets to four Jiangwei-class frigates Pakistan is boosting its conventional capability armed with Chinese conventional weaponry. Other key Chinese weapons exports to Pakistan include the K-8 lightweight trainer/attack jets since 2000. China has supplied over a 100 of the export version of the PLA Air Force’s F-7E, called the F-7MG fighter jet an upgraded adaptation of the MiG-21. China has been selling surface-to-surface DF-11 missiles to Pakistan.

According to SIPRI, Bangladesh has got seven per cent of China’s arms sale, this translates that 80 per cent of Bangladesh’s military hardware is ‘Made in China’. Dhaka has purchased 44 Chinese Main Battle Tanks MBT 2000s in 2011 – a first time purchase for the country for brand new battle tanks. Bangladesh has also been lobbying for JF-17s and J-10 fighter jets that China has supplied to Pakistan.

Myanmar has purchased its weapons ‘evenly and exclusively’ from Russia and China. The Myanmar armed forces are now equipped with MiG-29s fighter jets, ground attack helicopters, battle tanks and artillery guns.

China’s inroads into the defence market in India’s backyard have been based on the strategy of beating its competitors by cutting down price. The established US companies like Lockheed Martin and others were edged out as the Chinese firm quoted a price of three billion dollar. It is a big achievement for the Chinese defence industry once notorious for its ‘reverse engineering’ of the Russian military hardware including fighter jets.

Till now Indian South Block corridors only reverberated with the concerns over the Chinese investment in various ports strategically located around India in the Indian Ocean Region – Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota and Colombo Port in Sri Lanka, one port in Bangladesh and another one in Myanmar - under the famously termed ‘Strings of Pearls’.

India and China jostling for the same space and resources in the international arena have been trying to edge each other out. The Indian strategic posture against China has been based on choking Chinese energy supplies by denying it the use of the Sea Lines of Communication passing through the Indian Ocean Region. To avoid this, China has been seeking alternative access to sea provided by Pakistan’s Gwadar port and then linking it to mainland China through the
all-weather Karakoram Highway.

The growth of Chinese defence industry is also fuelled by India’s stagnant arm production and the refusal of the South Block mandarins to take the fast-changing geo-strategic equations into consideration.

Even as India kick-started its biennial 8th Land, Naval and Internal, Homeland Security Systems Exhibition, the Indian defence production industry has not significant achievement to showcase. Its faltering attempts to stitch together a potent Defence Production Policy to give impetus to the indigenous defence industry have not bear fruits yet. But for a successful missile programme, the other Indian defence production have experience modest success. The long-awaited ambitious project of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has been in limbo for over 25 years now and would take another couple of years – conservatively speaking – before entering service.

The Indian defence establishment seems to be satisfied with few HAL-manufactured Dornier units being exported or its shipyards supplying Offshore Patrolling Vessel (OPVs) to Indian Ocean Littoral countries.

The Indian footprint in the international market is not even close to China and the defence establishment is still to evolve a standard procedure to allow defence export. So far the Indian policy is to supply equipment to ‘friendly’ countries but there is no clarity on which are those countries. The government is also working on simplifying the NoC (No Objection Certificate) granting procedure.

With Indian Economy slowing down, the Indian Defence Ministry has been expressed inability to have funds for purchasing the long over-due 126 Medium Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) facing shortage of fighting squadrons. In such a scenario it is highly unlikely that the Indian defence production will scale some feats in the coming years.

But for the shipbuilding – owing to the farsightedness of the Indian Navy, the home-grown defence industry has not made any significant headway in terms of indigenous technology development.

The author is a defence and strategic affairs expert
Ritu Sharma

Ritu Sharma

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