Foreign arms sales threaten international security : Study

SPEAK softly and carry a big stick; you will go far,” said US President Teddy Roosevelt in 1901.

Today, Mr Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin might add: “And ifyou don’t have a big stick, let us give you one.”

At a time when worldwide arms production and transfers are falling, countries like the US and Russia are producing more arms for export than for domestic use for the first time in history.

Trimmed post-Cold War military budgets in Western states and a lingering economic crisis have increased competition dramatically among arms exporters. Exporters are now searching for new markets in a field that remains a key source of hard currency.

The just-published Arms Production Dilemma by the Institute for Defence and Disarmament Studies (IDDS) reveals that major arms producers are attempting to keep weapons production lines open through export sales – even as home demand and global arms transfers decline.

The US-based defence think-tank studied the worldwide production, deployment and export of combat aircraft. The aerospace industry is the most important sector of arms production and trade, accounting for more than half its value.

The IDDS estimates that in the aftermath of the Cold War, world production and trade of combat aircraft have plummeted.

In the case of jet fighters, average annual production is decreasing by 85 per cent from about 2,200 in the 1970s to a projected 330 in the late 1990s.

This trend corresponded with the findings of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s annual report this year on conventional arms sales.

Sipri reported a dip in sales of 3.6 per cent last year compared with 1992. Overall transactions were worth some US$22 billion (S$32.12 billion).

The US secured a 48-per cent slice of the total, followed by Russia, which had 21 per cent. Germany followed with 8.4 per cent, while Britain just beat France to take the fourth spot.

But declining figures in foreign arms sales and the plethora of regional conflicts have not deterred arms-producing countries. They are hoping to increase exports to Asia and the Middle East as a way to maintain production lines, design capability and jobs – at the expense of international security.

Conventional wisdom suggests that in the face of a lack of potential buyers, governments shut down arms plants until arms users’ inventories grow old and replacement weapons are needed.

Officials argue that a “warm” defence industrial base – factories with active assembly lines – is needed not only to replace ageing equipment but also to insure against unforeseen military threats.

But governments cannot simply lay off workers with specialised knowledge and skills and then expect to rehire them at short notice years later when their special expertise is needed again.

The problem is most acute in Russia, which sees foreign arms sales as an important source of badly needed foreign exchange. Exports would also allow the nation’s military-industrial complex to sail through a transition period of converting its military output to civilian production.

Russian defence firms have been hit hard by the arms sales slowdown that followed the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. In recent months, one plant after another have laid off thousands of workers at a time.

The US, the world’s largest arms exporter, is attempting to get around the problem by funding the sale of weapon systems to maintain firms and workers with specialised skills.

Like the other major arms producers, Washington is also promoting exports to developing countries as a way to employ arms production capacity and sustain profits and jobs.

The US, Russia, Britain, France and Sweden have put great effort into selling weapons to Asian countries, some of which are arms producers themselves.

The 300-page IDDS study sponsored by Harvard University’s Centre for Science and International Affairs reveals that one in five fighter planes produced in the world is sold to Asian countries, which are expected to buy more than 700 combat planes between this year and 2000.

While Asia is relatively peaceful, potential flashpoints abound – the conflict between North and South Korea, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and border disputes involving Myanmar, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In such an environment, aggressive arms export policies by industrial countries could do more harm than good. It could create or heighten regional conflicts, warn the authors of the study, a group of US, Russian and European defence experts.

About 70 per cent of all sales of combat fighters were made to five groups of adversaries: China and Taiwan; North and South Korea; India and Pakistan; Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran; Greece and Turkey.

Two of Russia’s six main export clients, China and Iran, are countries that Moscow views as potential future opponents. Another three, Iraq, North Korea and Syria, along with the first two, are states identified as potential US opponents in major regional wars.

Criticising the export policies of major arms-producing countries, IDDS director Randall Forsberg, said: “The priority now is short-term economic interests, profits and jobs, and keeping production lines warm as a hedge against the growth of future threats.

“This is ultimately a self-defeating policy because arms transfers often form the basis of future threats.”

What can be realistically done to curb foreign arms sales? For a start, certain mechanisms to control the arms trade may be contemplated.

A register maintained by the United Nations to track sales has already been mooted. An attempt could be made to extend this role by setting up a body like the International Atomic Energy Agency, with responsibilities for overseeing arms imports.

The Conference on Security and Cooperation could also act as an umbrella body to police sales by its members.

But some observers are sceptical of measures to control arms exports.

Mr Richard Grimmett, a defence specialist at the US Congressional Research Service, points out that the end of the Cold War means that an ideology that links Western nations in the common goal of arms transfer restraint is now a thing of the past.

“I do not expect to see any golden opportunity here at arms control. Without the ideology and ever-present threat, economic interests will increasingly prevail,” he said.

Indeed. It will be hard to wean arms-makers of their dependency on exports – an issue that is bedevilling the US administration currently.

The Pentagon and other federal agencies are embroiled in a dispute that could determine whether Mr Clinton is willing to help beleaguered US arms companies by sacrificing a key objective of liberal Democrats – limits on arms sales abroad.

The Defence Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are urging the White House not to restrain the export of conventional weapons. They are also calling for the creation of a federal fund to help promote such sales.

These proposals were challenged by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency which urged the government to approve a new policy to limit arms sales.

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill are also pushing this line, calling on the administration to break from the policies of ex-presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

But the Democrats’ ambition has so far been frustrated by the government’s desire to boost domestic employment by increasing exports of all goods, including arms.

If Mr Clinton decides to back the Pentagon, it would give the green light to US defence contractors to expand their arms exports from the current US$12 billion to US$13 billion.

“This is a hard one,” the Washington Post newspaper last month quoted a senior US official as saying.

“It is a policy where you get genuine, conflicting interests between ensuring that US allies can defend themselves in cooperation with US military forces, and also ensuring that regions and nations are not destabilised by unmeasured and excessive arms sale.”

Ultimately, the success of controlling arms exports will depend on the political commitment brought to them by participating countries.

As for countries in Asia, the Middle East and other parts of the world, they need not worry too much about acquiring that big stick.

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