UN Arms Treaty: A Sore Spot for India’s Military
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UN Arms Treaty: A Sore Spot for India’s Military

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On April 2, a landmark treaty regulating the U.S. $70 billion conventional weapons trade was approved by the 193-member United Nations General Assembly in New York. Besides regulating business in conventional arms, the UN Arms Trade Treaty – which received 154 votes – aims to link sales of arms to a country’s human rights record. The treaty also prohibits states from exporting conventional weapons in violation of arms embargoes, or weapons that would be used for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or terrorism.

No wonder then, that chronic human rights abusers Syria, Iran and North Korea became the only three countries voting against the treaty. However, several key powers abstained from voting, including Russia, China and India – taking the gloss off what was otherwise a historic vote.

While India’s abstention disappointed many who were hoping to see the world’s largest democracy sign on to an important normative framework to regulate the global arms trade, it is fair to say that it was borne out of hard-nosed realism.

As the world’s largest conventional arms importer in 2012, representing 12 percent of all global imports, New Delhi is a significant stakeholder in the global arms trade. At the heart of India’s abstention were concerns that its military – which relies heavily on foreign arms imports – could be affected adversely by unilateral decisions by arms exporters.

Explaining India’s position, its chief negotiator Sujata Mehta said, “India cannot accept that the Treaty be used as an instrument in the hands of exporting states to take unilateral force majeure measures against importing states without consequences.”

India's worry stems from the concern that once the treaty comes into effect, the nation’s bilateral defense agreements could come under the treaty's purview. Article 7 of the resolution gives broad powers to the exporting country to make arms supply contingent upon an "export assessment" that could be abused to halt supplies. Without adequate safeguards, New Delhi deems the treaty to be skewed in favor of exporting nations.

More importantly, India’s abstention highlights its over-dependence on foreign arms amid a failure on its part to meet its own defense needs via domestic production. Currently, India buys over 70 percent of its arms requirements from the international market and is expected to spend U.S. $100 billion over the next decade on arms purchases.

This over-reliance on foreign arms amid a number of high-profile cases of corruption in defense purchases have slowed and even threatened the modernization of India’s military, prompting India’s Defense Minister A.K. Antony to call for increased indigenous defense production in February.

By contrast, other major arms importers like China have made impressive strides in increasing domestic production. A report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in March notes that China has replaced the United Kingdom to become the fifth largest arms exporter in the world, boosting its share of world arms exports from 2 percent to 5 percent between 2008-2012, an increase of 162 percent. 

Indeed, China’s massive military modernization drive has been matched by progress in the development of its military industry. However, India has failed to create a viable domestic arms manufacturing base, despite increasing its military spending in recent years. Part of the problem stems from its failure to create a strong policy environment that would allow the private sector to play a larger role in the defense industry. This problem has been compounded by vociferous opposition from public-sector unions.

Pending reforms, defense manufacturing in India remains under the purview of state-owned firms such as the Defense Research Development Organization (DRDO), which have been a byword for chronic inefficiency. DRDO’s major projects, including a program to build light combat aircraft as well as airborne early warning systems, are behind schedule by up to 13 years.

If anything, the approval of the arms trade treaty and India’s reservations about it should serve as a wake-up call for New Delhi to make concerted efforts to overhaul its domestic defense industry. This means allowing private players to play a leading role in research and development, driving innovation in the sector.

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