India remains the world’s largest arms buyer by a huge margin, even as regional rivalries spur the flow of arms to other countries in Asia, according to a report released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
India increased its arms imports by 111 percent in the past five years compared with 2004–08, and it now accounts for 14 percent of the world’s arms imports. The mainly Russian-supplied flow of arms to India dwarfs the imports of its regional rivals China and Pakistan, the second- and third-largest buyers.
“There is money, there is threat perception, and there is a willingness of exporters to supply weapons,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher with SIPRI Arms Transfers Program and a co-author of the report.
The United States and Russia dominate arms exports — over half the market, combined — but their business has diversified and shifted focus from Europe toward emerging world powers such as India, Brazil and China. Even as European imports declined by a full quarter over the past five years, the volume of global arms sales climbed 14 percent in 2009 through 2013 compared with the previous five-year period, SIPRI found.
Because arms sales fluctuate year to year, SIPRI uses a five-year average to provide a more stable measure of trends.
By a substantial margin, Asia witnessed the greatest growth in arms imports. The region buys 47 percent of the globe’s major weapons. Among the bigger importers is South Korea, which ranked eighth in that period, reflecting both the country’s burgeoning economic prowess and rising tensions with North Korea. The South has devoted its considerable defense spending to being able to detect and destroy North Korean missiles, SIPRI said.
But the global arms-importing trifecta consists of three Asian countries that eye each other with constant suspicion: India, Pakistan and China. Though India went on the biggest buying spree in the world, Pakistan has boosted its weapons imports by 119 percent and now ranks third in the world behind China, which has gained a foothold in high-tech arms exports as well. Relations between India and Pakistan have been hostile since they split in 1947, a history punctuated by several wars and an ongoing border dispute in the Kashmir region, but China’s recent efforts to expand its regional military presence are viewed as especially threatening.
“China’s naval modernization is starting to infringe on the Indian Ocean, which India considers its backyard,” Wezeman said. “That’s why you see both countries expanding naval forces slowly and carefully toward Southeast Asia.”
India’s arms-buying is also explained by the country’s failure to satisfy its appetite for weaponry through domestic production. “A growing India still depending on foreign companies for a substantial part of our defense needs is not a happy situation,” the country’s Defense Minister A.K. Antony admitted at a defense expo in New Delhi last month. Of the world’s top 10 weapons buyers, India has the second-lowest domestic production, trailing only Saudi Arabia. Most analysts place the blame on poor infrastructure, limited real estate and civil sector corruption.
But the threat of imminent war is not the only factor that motivates the hoarding of high-tech arms. “India, it sees itself as a regional power, if not a world power,” Wezeman said. “When you have those ambitions, that requires some military powers or muscle that you can show off. Otherwise, it’s not really power. So prestige does play a role in weapons acquisition.”
Global stature also appears to motivate Brazil’s climbing weapons imports, despite the relative placidity of South America. With one of the world's fastest-growing economies, Brazil has sought to build on its role as the most powerful nation on the continent. As it charts that course, it has increased weapons imports by 65 percent in 2009 through 2013 versus 2004 through 2008. That includes an order for 36 combat aircraft from Sweden for $4.8 billion and four submarines from France for $9.7 billion. Brazil has announced plans to replace its aircraft carrier, the only one in South America. “You ask yourself, what is that good for? It fits a prestige role much better than anything else,” Wezeman said.
Other regions where arms buying has picked up include the Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by some Arab nations), home to the fourth- and fifth-largest importers in the world, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Conflict-ridden African states like Sudan and Uganda also witnessed huge increases in 2009 through 2013 compared with the previous period.
Europe, the only region to observe a sharp decline arms imports, has faced limited threats to its stability as well as a long-running eurozone economic crisis, which has contracted spending in most countries. “But that all may change considering how Russia is using missile policy toward Ukraine,” Wezeman said. “It has already lead to discussions in Poland and Sweden about whether those countries actually have enough missiles to deal with a more assertive Russia.”