July 27, 2012, a Friday, turned out to be a day of failed diplomacy, as the specially convened United Nations conference could not reach a consensus on a treaty to regulate conventional arms trade. The futile enterprise emerged out of an expected, and by now familiar, pattern — reluctance on the part of the United States of America, Russia and China to support the draft treaty papers as the negotiators ran out of time.
Reportedly, one of the main hurdles came from the American arms trade groups, which found it prudent to avoid offending the powerful “domestic programme lobby” during a presidential election year. Incidentally, a group of 51 senators had threatened to oppose any agreement that infringed upon the constitutional right of American citizens to own firearms. Although the UN general assembly is now likely to pursue the draft Arms Trade Treaty and set up international arms trade procedures to prohibit the supply of weapons to states that violate international humanitarian law, there is little doubt that turbulent days await the ATT supporters’ plan for vote.
Understandably, the US appears jittery as it supports a second round of negotiations “conducted on the basis of consensus” to be held next year. But it “does not support a vote in the General Assembly”. The US has sought time to discuss this complex and critical issue.
‘Critical’ indeed is the subject for not only the US but also half-a-dozen leading arms-manufacturing nations of the world that are likely to be on the US’s side and endorse its view as the arms market generates considerable wealth and employment, apart from being a source of sustenance for the Western scientific community engaged in research and development. A clearer picture would, however, emerge if one takes a closer look at the international arms industry and its members.
Fifty American firms figure on the list of the world’s largest companies that produce weapons (excluding Chinese companies). A large number of people are gainfully employed with the top 15 US companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and so on. Understandably, neither the American president nor a senator representing his constituency will have the courage to take any measures that may reduce the profitability of US arms companies.
Russia, the second largest supplier of major conventional weapons during 2007-2011, has a 24 per cent share of the world’s arms market. Nearly 63 per cent of its products are exported to Asian countries. India received 33 per cent and China 16 per cent of the military machines made by Moscow. They were followed by Algeria (14 per cent), Venezuela (7 per cent) and Vietnam (4 per cent). With a major customer base spread from Beijing to Caracas, Russia losing its grip on a profitable and high-profile defence and diplomatic connection is unlikely. The top 10 Russian arms companies employ at least a million people.Why then would Russia be enthusiastic about the prospect of a UN- guided arms transfer treaty that could possibly result in the loss of diplomatic leverage and lucrative defence deals?
Although the US, Russia and China appeared at the forefront to negate the UN-sponsored diplomacy, it may not be wrong to surmise that other arms producing and exporting nations must have been relieved to find their defence-industrial complexes would remain untouched by the proposed regulation. Hence Germany, the work-horse of Europe, has reasons to go forward and raise arms exports by 37 per cent, thereby improving its position to the third largest among arms exporters. With a 9 per cent share in the weapons export market, Berlin’s advance portends a loss for French companies. France climbed down to the fourth position during 2007-2011. With an 8 per cent share in overseas arms sales, the French are in no mood to be replaced by any of their competitors in Asia, Oceania, Europe and the Middle East.
The British don’t appear too keen on an international arms trade treaty, which may pose a threat to their consistent position in the arms exports market. With a list of steady buyers of British military hardware in the Middle East, Asia and Oceania, along with a major breakthrough that was achieved by its penetration into the US arms market — arguably the biggest and the best in the world — London can only wish that it continues to get better and bigger purchase orders. An arms trade treaty under the stewardship of the UN, therefore, is likely to be scorned at by such British military companies as BAE Systems, Babcock International Group, Serco, and so on, which employ 2.5 lakh workers and possess a share of 4 per cent of the international weapons market. Given the unprecedented economic recession, stagnant industrial growth and drastic cuts in the defence budget, can the British authorities afford to be seen as the ones responsible for unemployment and labour retrenchment in defence technology?
Beyond the list of the five largest traditional arms exporters — the US, Russia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom — stands China. Analysts, either from the West or outside it, do not know for sure the actual value and volume of Beijing’s indigenous arms industry. But what has been established is that China’s volume of international arms exports rose from 2 to 4 per cent, catapulting the nation from the seventh position to sixth place. Understandably, Chinese clients in Asia received 73 per cent of the arms. They were followed by those from the Middle East and Africa. Pakistan is the main recipient of Chinese arms exports. It has a 64 per cent share of the transfer of MBT-2000 tanks, JF-17 fighter aircraft and F-22P frigates.
It thus transpires that the UN enterprise on the creation of a legally binding arms trade treaty is unlikely to raise hopes on account of the resistance offered by the major arms manufacturing states that remain interested only in commercial factors. How else does one justify the entry of new players in the international weapons producing club?
China and Russia along with the US, France and the UK issued a joint statement in July 2011 to support the “efforts aimed at establishing an international instrument on the transfer of conventional weapons”. Yet it is likely to take years before the nations reach a consensus. The implementation of the clauses in the draft is likely to take a few more years. Till then, it would be business as usual. The powerful nations would continue to dominate the international arms market.