Global arms trade: Who’s buying, who’s selling, and why

The volume of global arms transfers has increased by 10 per cent in the past five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, reflecting a increasingly destabilised security environment in parts of the world and the changing dynamics of global geopolitics.

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The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), an independent Sweden-based think tank, published its annual Trends in International Arms Transfers earlier this week. The volume of global arms trade has increased by 10 per cent in the past five years, accelerating a steady increase since the beginning of this century. This uptick underscores an increasingly destabilised security environment in several parts of the world, as well as changing dynamics of global geopolitics.

The five largest exporters by volume between 2013 and 2017 were the U.S., Russia, France, Germany and China, while the largest importers were India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and China. Russia and the U.S. account for 56 per cent of global arms exports. The 40 largest importers accounted for over 85 per cent of total imports, with India and Saudi Arabia alone representing 22 per cent of global imports.

Volume of arms transfers

Middle-Eastern countries accounted for the largest increase in arms transfers, with imports increasing by 103 per cent over the period. This reflects the destabilised regional security environment which emerged in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq, the Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa, the emergence of Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, as well as a growing rift between the two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and their allies.

Saudi Arabia stands out as the region’s largest arms buyer, increasing its acquisitions by 225 per cent over the past half-decade, and the level of orders for future deliveries continues to remain high amid a recovery in global oil prices and the kingdom’s proxy war against Iran in Yemen. Egypt has diversified its sources of arms and increased its imports by 215 per cent. Qatar imported 166 per cent more arms between 2013 and 2017, compared to the previous period, and signed several import deals last year, emphasising its mounting isolation from its neighbours in the Gulf. Kuwait and Oman increased their imports by 488 per cent and 655 per cent, respectively.

Main arms importers
In Asia, India and Pakistan continue to be among the largest importers due to the arms race engendered by the two countries’ fraught bilateral relations, and by India’s mounting concerns about Chinese ambitions in South Asia.

Although arms imports decreased in several European countries over the past five years, some signed new import agreements in 2017, likely in response to the growing antagonism between the West and Russia.

For further details, read Sipri’s Trends in Arms Transfers, 2017 or explore its arms transfers database.

Allan & Associates comments and forecast

Sipri’s database of arms transfers is a good metric for understanding countries’ security concerns as well as their capacity for ensuring the security of their own territory, particularly those affected by internal conflict or non-state armed groups. The trade in surface- or air-launched guided missiles for use against ground targets is a good indication of states’ ability to deter aggression from neighbouring states, but less so as a means to combat NSAGs operating within their territory.

As a number of armed conflicts are either emerging or intensifying in several parts of the world, and as competition from China intensifies, compliance risks for arms manufacturers and traders are likely to increase in the coming years, most notably as arms embargoes are put in place and China seeks to expand its global export market, as a means of exerting control over military supply chains and accruing the associated diplomatic leverage. Allan & Associates sources note the rapid rise in the visibility of Chinese sales executives at arms fairs, particularly in the Middle East.

‘Worryingly, among the biggest purchasers are two countries led by ailing rulers who lack clear successors

Although not included in Sipri’s data, South Korea in late February ordered 90 air-launched guided missiles, likely intended for use against North Korea’s inter-continental ballistic missile systems. By the same token, Japan – which saw its arms exports decrease by 19 per cent over the past five years – ordered extended-range air-to-surface missiles from Norway and the United States in December 2017. Conversely, the declining number of arms imports to South American states coincides with a decline in interstate antagonism there over the past decade.

Worryingly, among the biggest purchasers are two countries led by ailing rulers who lack clear successors, raising concerns that the weapons could be used to seize power after their deaths. Algeria, led by the frail octogenarian Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has significantly increased its weapons stockpile over the past decade. So too has Oman, where Sultan Qaboos bin Said is receiving treatment for colon cancer. Neither country faces major external threats.

The arms transfer database illustrates shifts in the pattern of international relations. For instance, declining arms transfers between the United States and Egypt, Pakistan, and Venezuela, highlight deteriorating relations between those states.

China’s declining volume of arms imports reflects its growing ability to produce advanced weapons, a trend that will continue over the next decade. Furthermore, Chinese arms will likely continue to increase in the five-year outlook, particularly to Sub-Saharan African countries, intensifying competition with the traditional U.S., European and Russian supplies.

By contrast, India’s prominent role as an arms importer reflects its worries over China’s mounting military capabilities, given the neighbours’ strategic competition along India’s periphery. Naval assets are likely to be a primary priority for Indian defence planners given China’s prominent displays of surface warships in the Indian Ocean.

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