By Nantoo Banerjee
The brewing rivalry between the United States and China over the strategic control of parts of Asia and the Pacific region is set to scale new heights in the coming years. This may altogether change the character of the global arms trade which has been increasingly facing a cut-throat competition among leading weapons suppliers from the US, Russia, France, China, the UK, Italy and Israel in an otherwise depressed market.
Though the US and Russia continue to be the world’s top two arms exporters, the picture is likely to change soon with both the US and China — itself a major arms importer from Russia — are aggressively expanding their presence in this vast Asia-Pacific region. Israel too is out to take advantage of the shifting arms market focus . Saudi Arabia, India, Australia, Pakistan and Iran are emerging as the hottest markets in the global arms trade. As of now, Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest arms importer, closely followed by India.
Between 2016 an 2020, China officially held the fifth position in the world arms export market after the US, Russia, France and Germany. Unofficial reports, however, rank China the world’s third largest exporter of arms by taking into account China’s clandestine weapon sales in strife-torn countries. In the last two years, China has steadily improved its arms export performance in the region with stronger grip over the Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algerian markets. During the current year, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Iran opened big opportunities for China’s arms export. Israel is also fast emerging as a major ‘military’ exporter.
The growing arms competition in the Asia-Pacific region is best cited by the latest diplomatic tussle and verbal acrimony between two long standing allies and NATO members — the US and France. It was over the grabbing of an Australian order for the supply of submarines by the US while France had been negotiating with Australia for the contract for nearly two years. The public spat between the two friends dumped all diplomatic decency as France recalled its ambassadors from Washington DC and Canberra to express its forceful disapprobation of the way America tricked France out of the Australian contract by offering nuclear submarines instead of conventional ones. Somewhat covertly, the US came from behind with not only the offer of nuclear submarines, but also agreement to build nuclear-powered submarines with Australia
The only other country with which the US shares the technology is the UK. Under the latest deal, the US and UK will work together with Australia to build the nuclear submarines. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that over the next 18 months, Australia, the UK, and the US will “intensely examine the full suite of requirements that underpin nuclear stewardship and demonstrate a clear pathway to becoming a responsible and reliable steward of this sensitive technology”. These submarines will give Australia the strategic capability to conduct operations in the larger Pacific region, including the South China Sea. This is the main reason why the AUKUS pact (Australia-UK-US) is being viewed as a defence deal to curtail China’s assertiveness, by propping up Australia’s strategic naval capabilities.
The US-Australia arms deal also suggests that future big-time arms export deals in the region will come through bi-lateral and multilateral defence tie ups somewhat on the same line as the erstwhile Soviet Union and the US along with its military allies used to conduct during the cold war days. Only this time, the new cold war actors are the US and China. While Russia may be forced to gradually concede a part of its arms export trade to increasingly aggressive China, the latter is expected to grab weapons supplies to countries that find both the US and Russia rather less reliable. West Asia and parts of South and South-East Asia are getting increasingly inclined to have arms import pact with China, including those with nuclear strike capabilities. Till now, the US is the largest arms dealer in West Asia. But, several of these countries are believed to be considering China as ‘Option B.’
Several Arab nations see China an alternative source of arms import that is less likely to involve political strings and potential repercussions which typically accompany arms deals with the US. China’s role as an arms exporter to Arab countries as also several other parts of world is far less in the limelight mainly because of the secretive nature of such deals. Similarly, Israel’s defence exports are among the least publicised. Going by the Israel government’s own statement, the country’s ‘military exports’ reached $8.3 billion in 2020, buoyed by a 15 percent spike in the number of agreements signed. Israel cited new markets in Asia and the Pacific region allowing sales jumping $1 billion from the 2019 level. High-precision Israeli defence and intelligence products are in increasing demand even in the Arab world. Israeli products suit buyers as they are totally commercial and normally without attachment of political strings. It is to be seen how other major arms suppliers fare in the face of such a fierce arms race in this region. (IPA Service)