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Power Defiance Redefined

Dr. Kanica Rakhra is Consultant to the Disarmament and International Security Affairs division of the Ministry of External Affairs.
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  • May 29, 2019

    The Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) released its May 2019 issue of Strategic Security Analysis titled, “The Arms Trade Treaty and Asia’s Major Power Defiance – India, China, Pakistan and Indonesia”. The paper has raised a number of issues regarding the gaps within the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) while highlighting what the four Asian States- India, Pakistan, Indonesia and China- find problematic in acceding to the Treaty.

    The paper brings to the forefront the genuine causes of concern for these Asian states: Indonesia not only has apprehensions on the notion of conditionality within the Treaty, but is equally wary of the Treaty’s inability to address the non-state actor threat and to curb transit and transhipment of illicit arms. Pakistan is not sure of being able to meet its Treaty obligations specific to arms trafficking as it has a porous border with Afghanistan. The non-participation of other major powers is a significant factor in China’s refusal to join the Treaty. And lastly, India does not believe that the Treaty addressed its causes of concern on illicit trade and imbalance in obligations between the exporting and importing States.

    The Arms Trade Treaty does not hamper arms sales between government entities. It postulates that, “each State will decide which measures it needs to put in place in order to carry out its obligations under the ATT.” For both India and China, however, the paper refers to the growth in the defence expenditure as a factor that hampers their desire to participate in the ATT. India’s explanation of vote during the UNGA Session on the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013 was specifically directed at two aspects of the Treaty: one, it is weak on terrorism and in combating the non-state actors; and two, there is an imbalance in the obligations of importing and exporting States. The paper cites the contradiction between India’s interests in the ATT and its growing defence exports, with States such as Bangladesh, Oman, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Mauritius slated to import US$2 billion worth of defence equipment from India. But it fails to bring to light that India is still the world’s second largest arms importer, which underlines its concerns over the imbalance between the obligations of importing and exporting States. Thus, the problem areas that were highlighted by India when the Treaty opened for signature hold true in-spite of its growing defence exports and imports.

    The paper highlights that weapons sales by India have risen over the years while simultaneously pointing out how it has taken a significant step in adhering to the export control lists of all the four regimes, the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Australia Group (AG). India is one of the few Asian States to have joined three of these regimes – AG, WA and MTCR, along with South Korea and Japan. India’s membership in these regimes exemplifies its commitment to strengthen international security and non-proliferation objectives. 

    There are currently eight items covered under the legally binding ATT (article 2): battle tanks; armoured combat vehicles; large-calibre artillery systems; combat aircraft; attack helicopters; warships; missiles and missile launchers; and, small arms and light weapons (SALW). The non-legally binding WA covers all the above categories. Additionally, the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA), of which India is a member, covers all the mentioned categories along with an additional category, i.e., Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). The paper also ignores the fact that India, in line with its international commitments, is also a part of the United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (UNPOA). India’s adherence to various non-legally binding mechanisms/regimes is a clear indicator of its support for transparency. India’s strong export controls are at par with international best practices, as evident in its adherence with the four key export control regimes. Along with its international commitments, India becomes an ATT+ country in terms of control over export of arms. New Delhi has met the major objectives of the ATT and there is almost no evident value addition for India in joining the ATT in its current format.

    Although the focus of the paper is on Asian States, it does not take into consideration the perspectives of other Asian States that come within the top arms importers of the world such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Vietnam, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates. Vietnam’s concerns stem from the Treaty’s failure to ‘strike a balance between international peace and nations’ legitimate right to self-defence’. For its part, Iran states that ‘the Treaty failed to ban the transfer of conventional arms to “aggressors” and “foreign occupiers”.’ The role of these States is equally important in strengthening the Treaty and making it a functional entity.

    The paper also bypasses the not-so-recent withdrawal of the United States from the ATT, which has resulted in the top two (Russia and US) arms exporting states being out of the ambit of the Treaty. As the world’s largest arms exporter, the withdrawal of the US from the ATT severely dents future prospects of making the Treaty universal and effective. Further, given the fact that, as highlighted in the paper, 60 per cent of illicit weapons sales originate from the United States, the US withdrawal from the ATT may increase illicit arms transfers exponentially. President Trump has faced a lot of backlash for his decision, which is considered by many as harmful to long term US interests. Analysts believe that it takes away the moral high ground and reduces US influence in the treaty process.

    Another aspect underscored by the authors is that there is “a heightened arms race in the region” and that in such a scenario, “ATT would hamper their sovereign security parameters”. Although there is trust deficit between Asian arms importers, the gaps between their defence imports are too large to be categorised as an arms race. For example, the paper lists India-Pakistan, India-China and China-Vietnam as having trust deficits. But India’s share of arms imports is 9.5 per cent, while Pakistan’s is 2.7 per cent. Although China’s share of imports is 4.2 per cent compared to Vietnam’s 2.9 per cent, the People’s Republic of China is the fifth largest arms exporter with a 5.2 per cent share of arms exports in the world.

    The reference to sovereign security parameters is a concern shared by the United States of America as well. This explanation was used by President Trump to justify withdrawal from the ATT. However, the Treaty does not impose restrictions on arms trade; its key purpose is to keep track of the arms trade in order to reduce illicit trafficking of arms. This fact is further strengthened by the significant growth in defence exports of the UK, which has signed and ratified the Treaty. Thus, the ATT does not impinge upon the sovereign rights of States to trade in arms; it aims to bring transparency to international arms transfers.

    The paper rightly points to the gaps in the ATT that need to be addressed by the State Parties. One of the most significant issues with the Treaty is that of reporting. According to the paper, not a single State Party has submitted an update regarding its legislations and regulations related to international conventional arms trade. Nor have State Parties submitted reports on their annual arms transfers. Thus, the mechanisms within the ATT need to be strengthened before more member states are encouraged to join the discussions.

    The ATT currently does not address the issue of illicit trafficking in a stringent manner. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 98 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s conventional weapons were supplied by ATT members and signatories in 2015. However, as Saudi Arabia is not an ATT state party, it is not answerable for its arms trade. Thus, ratified states need to take a lead in showing visible change, before other members are added to the ATT. The authors suggest that Asian States, which account for 19 per cent of global arms imports, should make changes to the Treaty after joining it. They base their argument on the fact that Article 20 of the ATT will allow amendments to be considered by the Conference of State Parties (CSP) from 25 December 2020. But if the Treaty in its current form is weak on illicit trafficking of arms, would additional members not make the process of reaching consensus on amendments more difficult? Given that all changes would be undertaken on the basis of consensus, it would be a challenge for States to amend the Treaty to make it more efficient in accordance with Article 20. It is unrealistic to expect non-signatories to join the treaty unless member States strengthen the Treaty and make it favourable for new states to join. Amendments within the Treaty to include stronger action on the non-State actor could potentially act as a catalyst for greater participation of some Asian States.

    Additionally, without the top five arms exporters (US, Russia, France, Germany, and China) heavily invested in the negotiation process to strengthen the Treaty from within, no change will be effectively implemented in global arms trade. While a recent announcement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China on its consideration of joining the ATT has offered hope to the efforts of strengthening the Treaty, Russia has expressed its apprehensions on how the Treaty is discriminatory, does not include a direct ban on unlicensed arms production or transfers to non-State actors, and has no provisions regulating the re-export of items intended for military use. Although Russia is a non-signatory, as the second largest arms exporter, its concerns need to be addressed in order to strengthen the Treaty.

    What the Arms Trade Treaty needs is the backing of significant arms trading States – the United States, Russia and China – to come together and provide the Treaty with the required sense of legitimacy since they account for more than 50 per cent of arms exported around the world. Implementation of the ATT without the participation of these States would be a step in the right direction, but would not address the global problem of illicit trafficking in arms and its diversion to non-state actors. Bringing the arms trading States into the folds of the Treaty is necessary to serve the dual purpose of moving multilateral discussions towards fruition and drastically weakening the illicit trade and trafficking of arms around the world. But the choice for aspiring member States should not be between a toothless Treaty with more members and a strong Treaty without the top defence importers and exporters.

    Dr. Kanica Rakhra is Consultant to the Disarmament and International Security Affairs division of the Ministry of External Affairs.

    Views expressed by the author do not reflect the views of the Ministry of External Affairs.