South Asia and the international arms trade

IssueSeptember - November 2003
Feature by Tom Lansford

South Asia remains one of the most volatile regions of the world. Continued arms sales and weapons transfers only exacerbate both ongoing and potential conflicts in the area.

However, significant declines in the overall volume and profits of the global defence industry have increased domestic pressure on national governments to expand their market-share and continue arms sales to regions in conflict. Since1985, the overall total of global purchases of major weapons systems has declined by half. Concurrently, the sale of small arms and light weapons has increased.

South Asia provides an example of the correlation between aggressive new marketing strategies by defence companies and heightened support for arms sales as a component of foreign policy by the major arms producing nations, including the United States, Russia and the large Western European states.

The revived arms trade in South Asia

The twin nuclear tests by Pakistan and India in 1998 and the subsequent military coup in Pakistan led to significant sanctions against both states in terms of arms and weapons. Although the United States and the major Western European states imposed restrictions on sales to the two countries, both governments were still able to purchase arms and ammunition.

India continued to be supplied by Russia, while Pakistan was able to continue to purchase Chinese weaponry. Tensions over the disputed territory of Kashmir have created the world's largest minefield as a buffer between the two states, even as conventional ground forces and paramilitary groups undertake incursions and engage in small scale combat on a regular basis.

In the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on the United States, the major restrictions against both states were dropped. This action marked a transition in US policy away from efforts to contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the region to open military support for a country--Pakistan--that had been the subject of sanctions because of its nuclear programme, the military coup, and its support for international terrorism.

For instance, although the United States enacted Section 508 of the 2001 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act-- which bans the sale or transfer of weaponry to nations where the legal government has been overthrown--the Bush administration authorised $100 million in military aid for Pakistan that same year. This aid included the transfer of six AH-64 Apache helicopters and other high-tech equipment, such as night-fighting gear and advanced communications equipment. The administration also provided $47 million for the Northern Alliance to purchase Soviet-era weaponry from Russia.

Russia has also signed contracts to sell its advanced attack helicopter, the Mi-16, to Pakistan, while continuing to upgrade Indian military capabilities, including intermediate range missiles and components of an anti-missile defence system. By 2001, India had become the third largest importer of weaponry behind China and Taiwan and has increased its arms imports by 50 percent from the 1990s.

After declining through the mid—and late--1990s, South Asia once again imports conventional military equipment worth more than one billion US dollars per year. From 1993 to 2002, military expenditures in the region increased by 44 percent. Pakistan continues to spend more than $2 billion per year and India spends more than $15 billion (or approximately one-sixth of the nation's budget). On a comparative basis, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) points out that India now ranks third behind the US and China in terms of defence expenditures as a percentage of purchasing power parity rates.

The impact on the region

One further unfortunate result of the 2001 Al Qaeda attacks is that this substantial increase in the amount, sophistication and diversity of arms and weapons continues to expand dramatically even as tensions between Pakistan and India remain heightened.

The flow of arms into the region continues at two levels. First, on a state level, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan each seek to acquire ever more sophisticated military technology. Besides raising tensions on both sides of the border, this tendency also suggests that there will be continued proliferation of weaponry.

As the United States discovered as a result of its efforts to use arms transfers to achieve policy goals in Iraq and Afghanistan, sophisticated arms are often resold to other states. Under a licensing deal, India will begin the domestic production of the T-90 tank and the government has indicated that it intends to try to sell the weapons system abroad. Various officials in the India government, including the defence minister, George Fernandes,have stated that the government seeks to increase its military exports from the cur-rent level of $20.7 million to $200 million.

Government spending on expensive military equipment and the defence industrial complex undermines domestic and international efforts to improve quality of life. For instance, India ranked 127out of 175 nations in the 2003 UN Human Development Index, a decline from 115 in 2001. Meanwhile Pakistan ranked 144, a decline from 127 in 2001.


Second, especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is thriving trade in illegal,or often quasi-legal, small arms and light weapons. Repeated studies by international groups such as the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research has demonstrated clear links between the international trade in small arms and various forms of crime, including narco-trafficking and terrorism. Particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the ease with which people can acquire weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, has fuelled ongoing internal strife. In Afghanistan, large stockpiles of arms have allowed regional warlords to reassert themselves in the wake of the fall of the Taliban regime.

International peacekeeping forces, now under the auspices of NATO, can only maintain order in the region around Kabul and must rely on the goodwill of un-elected warlords to perpetuate a fragile peace.

In Pakistan, the influx of small arms and light weapons along the border region has created an area that is essentially outside the control of the central government. In these renegade provinces, the combination of ready weaponry and religious extremism has created new havens for terrorist groups and worsened the growing ”Talibanisation” of the sub-state groups opposed to the central government for religious reasons, rather than because the Islamabad regime is undemocratic.

The need for new policies

Central to any effort to reduce tensions in the region is the resolution of the Kashmir issue. However, major powers around the world, including the United States, the European Union and Russia, have thus far been reluctant to attempt to mediate in the conflict for fear of alienating either Pakistan or India. What is most needed is the attention of the major powers either through the UN Security Council or through an ad hoc “contact group” such as that developed during the Balkan crisis.

Concurrently, the United States needs to expand its non-military aid to the region. Already a significant opportunity has been missed in Afghanistan where substantial reconstruction aid in the aftermath of the fall of the Taliban could have spurred economic growth and diluted the power of regional warlords.

Likewise the Bush administration's cancelling of $1 billion in Pakistani debt was a positive step. However, the administration's current plan which provides about $600 million annually for aid to the country is evenly divided between economic and military aid. The major arms exporting nations of the world need to re-evaluate their policy priorities and emphasise economic aid over arms transfers and weapons sales, even though domestic arms manufacturers will be likely to oppose such actions.