India emerges as the largest importer of arms in 2017-21

Egypt, Australia and China were the next three largest importers with respective shares of 5.7%, 5.4% and 4.8%.

India emerges as the largest importer of arms in 2017-21
India was the only country among the top five whose imports had declined during the said period

By Amit Cowshish,

The latest report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on Trends in International Arms Transfer, 2021, released in March 2022, reveals that India and Saudi Arabia had emerged as the largest arms importers of arms between 2017-21, each accounting for 11% of all global arms sales. The report places India at the top of the list. Egypt, Australia and China were the next three largest importers with respective shares of 5.7%, 5.4% and 4.8%.

Paradoxically, India was the only country among the top five whose imports had declined during the said period. The 21% decline in India’s imports in 2017-21 compared with 2012-16 were possibly because of the growing emphasis on the indigenous design and manufacture of defence equipment by state-owned and private sector companies.

Russia at 46% and France at 27% retained their respective positions as the two largest exporters to India even though the former’s exports declined by 3% between 2012-16 and 2017-21. France’s exports, on the other hand, increased by 9%, from 18% to 27%, during the same period, evidently because of the purchase of 36 Dassault Rafale Medium Multi-Role Aircraft for the Indian Air Force for some Rs 59,000 crores.

Israel, which was the third largest exporter to India during 2016-20 with a 13% share in India’s defence imports, was edged out by the US with a percentage share of 12% in 2017-21.With no major acquisition currently in the pipeline, it is uncertain if the US will be able to retain this position in 2018-22, much less improve it.

It is significant that 85% of India’s imports were from just three countries: Russia (46%), France (27%), and USA (12%). However, punitive sanctions imposed on Russia by the USA and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, including France, for its invasion of Ukraine had created a dilemma for India and accounted for it repeatedly abstaining from voting against Moscow in the United Nations General Assembly over its militarism.

With more than 60% -according to some estimates, 80-85%- of the equipment operated by its armed forces being of Russian-origin, India cannot afford to support these sanctions without serious operational consequences. At the same time, it cannot also ignore the incessant pressure from the USA and its allies to be categorical in condemning Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine, which continues to wreak untold devastation.

Meanwhile, of the five major arms exporters across the globe, USA and France increased their share in 2017-21, compared with 2012-16, retaining their standing as the world’s first and third largest arms exporters.This Is an indication of the technological superiority of the equipment these two countries manufacture and the consequential influence they exercise over their clients like India and Saudi Arabia.

According to the SIPRI report, the USA’s share in the global arms bazaar went up from 32% to 39%, while that of France increased from 6.4% to 11% in the afore-mentioned period. Russia, however, retained its position as the second largest exporter after the US despite a 26% drop in exports while China bested Germany to fourth position.

Though it retained its position as the second largest arms exporter, Russia’s exports declined by 26% from 24% in 2012-16 to 19% in 2017-21. Considering the sanctionsit now faces, this could further plummet this year. Much will depend on how far India, which accounted for 28% of Russia’s weapon exports, followed by China (21%) and Egypt (13%), is able to withstand the pressure to reduce imports from Russia.

Meanwhile, the 31% decline in China’s share of the global arms exports has been sharper, declining from 6.4% to 4.6% in the same period. In comparison, Germany’s decline has been gentler; it has dropped from 5.4% to 4.5% or a total of just 19%.

India, which was the 24th largest exporter during 2016-20 has improved its position by one notch to 23rd in 2017-21, with a share of just 0.2% of the global exports, far from its avowed goal of reaching USD 5 billion (INR 35,000 crore) by 2025.

The foremost challenge for India in this is to make inroads into markets which account for a bulk of global imports. Nothing illustrates this better than China’s rise as an arms exporter,due largely to its sales to Pakistan which increased from 38% in 2016-20 to 47% in 2017-21. Conversely, 72% of Pakistan’s imports during 2017-21 were expressly from China.

India, for its part, does not have a sphere of influence matching China’s or for that matter a customer like Pakistan with an ‘insatiable desire’ for military hardware, unmindful of its flailing economy and insidious debt trap.

(The author is Former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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First published on: 14-03-2022 at 16:04 IST