What Can We Learn From Kazakhstan’s Arms Deals?

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What Can We Learn From Kazakhstan’s Arms Deals?

Recent transactions reflect some underlying trends in the global arms market.

What Can We Learn From Kazakhstan’s Arms Deals?
Credit: Russia arms expo via ID1974 / Shutterstock.com

Few analysts regularly track the minutiae of arms sales. Who sells what to whom and for what purpose often gets overlooked in regional security analyses. But given Asia’s dynamism, tracking those kinds of questions actually reveals quite a lot about regional security trends.

Take Kazakhstan’s recent arms deals. They tell us a great deal about the global arms market and its interaction with security dynamics in Asia in general and Central Asia and Kazakhstan in particular. Kazakhstan has recently contracted with South Africa to produce and maintain armored military vehicles for local and regional export markets. The two countries also collaborate in space research programs and Kazakhstan’s launch platform at Baikonur has launched South African (and many other countries’) space satellites.

In the meantime, Kazakhstan has signed an accord on security cooperation with Israel that provides a general “umbrella” for cultivating defense trade and future cooperation. This accord formalizes more than a decade of Israeli arms sales to Kazakhstan. Apparently Kazakhstan is especially interested in unmanned systems, border security, command control capabilities and satellite communications – in other words, the leading sectors of military technology.

These agreements tell us a great deal about changing trends in the world of arms sales and Asian security, beyond the highly interesting fact of Israeli arms sales to a majority Muslim country. Two immediate trends stand out. First, the deals confirm the fact that states that are generally considered to be so-called middle powers have increasingly developed the technological basis and infrastructure to compete effectively with the great powers for arms markets in Asia and across the world. This trend reflects the accelerating diffusion of all technologies, not only military, throughout the globe and the benefits that can accrue to countries that effectively take advantage of those technologies. Consequently, the likes of Israel and South Africa now compete with Russia, the U.K., France and the U.S. in key markets.

The second trend reflected in Kazakhstan’s arms deals is the continuing shift towards a buyers market in global arms sales. Increasingly, consumers – and Asia is the most dynamic region of the world with regard to arms purchases or foreign arms sales – can demand from prospective buyers the transfer of technology, know-how and investment, building the skills and technology of the consumer country to the point where they can then become co-producers of the weapons and ultimately sell abroad. This trend thus plays back into the first one as the strengthening of buyers’ positions has provided smaller states with the opportunity not only to demand technology, investment and know-how transfers but ultimately, as Kazakhstan clearly intends to do, to become exporters in their own right and compete with their providers.

We have already seen this in the nuclear field. Here, with the exception of the U.S. and the U.K., every nation that has acquired nuclear weapons has done so through the transfer of the technology or necessary knowledge (sometimes, as in Russia’s case, espionage played a major role). Although nobody has sold actual nuclear missiles or bombs, those transfers have been the lubricant facilitating technological and skills transfers. Until 1998, when India and Pakistan tested their weapons, we were dealing with the phenomenon of primary proliferation from the original members of the Grand Alliance to others like France, China and probably Israel (which also benefited from French transfers). But since then we have seen secondary proliferation from China to North Korea and Pakistan, and now North Korea has already transferred missiles and chemical weapons abroad and was building a reactor in Syria for what had to be a prospective nuclear program until Israel destroyed it in 2007. North Korea and China also transferred extensive technology for missiles to Iran. Now we hear recurrent reports of discussions between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia about nuclear weapons that would represent a tertiary proliferation process. Certainly A.Q. Khan’s “nuclear WalMart” exhibited similar tendencies.

The outstanding example is China, which has taken Russian weapons, indigenized then, often by pirating Russian technology, to create its own weapons that it sells abroad, often in competition with Russian weapons. In 2006, China began selling the JF-17 Fighter with a Russian engine in it to Pakistan, causing Russia acute embarrassment with India, its other major customer. Russia ultimately had no contractual means of forcing China to desist from selling the JF-17 and its engine, and had to join the sale and antagonize its ally India. Worse, China vigorously hawked the JF-17 across Asia and Africa. It later became clear that China reverse engineered the Soviet RPG-7P anti-tank rockets, 122mm D 30 howitzer ammunition, and the PK10 assault gun exhibited at the annual MAKS international Defense Exhibition in Istanbul in 2009. China is also suspected of copying anti-ship missiles and aircraft engines, the SU 27 UBK fighter, and numerous air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons and then trying to compete with Moscow in Asian and African markets. It is believed to have copied anti-ship missiles and aircraft engines. And both the development of the J-11 fighter and its trainer the J-11B has caused considerable heartburn for Russia. At the same time, indigenizing the SU-33 in particular has been a major Chinese priority. Thus, China has been able both to demand transfers of advanced systems and technology and then to exploit its acquisitions for the purpose of entering the global arms market.

These examples show that the processes hitherto seen in China or in other East Asian countries are now spreading to Central Asia. And they also suggest one big loser: Russia. Russian arms sales have primarily gone to Asian buyers – China, India or Vietnam, for example. Nonetheless, Moscow has sought to diversify its arms sales abroad to avoid an excessive reliance on a single or few markets. But if Kazakhstan can develop an indigenous capability for high-tech weapons that will enable it to undercut Russian arms sales in Central Asia, which are a prime factor in preserving Russia’s strong position there. That too conforms to general economic trends where China has already outstripped Moscow as Central Asia’s leading commercial partner. Ultimately Central Asia is not exempt from general trends or from the intense security dynamics sweeping through Asia. And we have only begun to see or even glimpse what those trends may have in store in the future.

Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.