As tensions between India and Pakistan began building late last year, high level delegations from the U.S. and Britain flew in and out of New Delhi and Karachi, lobbying for peace. It turns out that is not all they were lobbying for. With the scent of blood in the air, the arms jackals have poured into South Asia, sometimes in the suits of leading government officials.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited India in January, ostensibly it was to calm troubled waters. But according to Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes, Blair was also pushing a $1.43 billion deal for India to purchase 66 Hawk fighter-bombers, made by Britain’s BAE Systems.
The Hawk deal—temporarily on hold while the parties haggle over the price tag—is part of a drive by British arms manufacturers to make a killing from the crisis. London is also selling the Indians Jaguar bombers capable of delivering nuclear weapons, as well as tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, small arms and ammunition.
The British are not alone in this seamy business. In February, Gen. Richard Myers, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to New Delhi to officially remove the U.S. ban on arms sales to India imposed in 1998, following the latter’s nuclear weapons tests. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. arms maker Raytheon closed a $146 million deal to sell the Indians counter-artillery radar. The U.S. has approved 20 other defense agreements, including submarine combat systems, helicopter spare parts, and a contract for General Electric to build engines for India’s multi-million dollar Light Combat Aircraft project.
“We are still at the dating stage,” says Bad Botwin, Director of Strategic Analysis for the U.S. Department of Commerce, “but we like what we see.”
U.S. technology is also slipping through the backdoor via arms agreements between Israel and India. New Delhi is buying the $1 billion Phalcon airborne radar, which is based on the U.S. AWAC system, and is negotiating to buy the Arrow anti-missile system jointly developed by the U.S. and Israel. Boeing makes 52 percent of the Arrow’s components. “India realizes it needs to be as close to the U.S. and Israeli technology as possible if it is to modernize its armed forces,” Indian defense analyst P.R. Chari told the Financial Times.
Buyer and seller are roughly matched in scale. India is one of the biggest arms markets in the world, with an annual budget of $14 billion The U.S. is the world’s number #1 arms dealer with $18.6 billion in arms sales last year.
But is pouring massive amounts of sophisticated arms into what is undeniably the most dangerous flashpoint on the globe a good idea? It has certainly scared the Pakistanis. “We are…alarmed by India’s relentless pursuit and acquisition of defense equipment that is far beyond India’s genuine needs,” said Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aziz Ahmed Khan.
With 35 percent of its budget already devoted to the military, Pakistan is certainly in no position to match the Indian arms buying spree. But as Pakistan falls further and further behind in the conventional sphere, the Pakistanis have made it clear that they will counterbalance that weakness with nuclear weapons.
India has rationalized its military buildup as part of a “war on terrorism,” and has successfully hung a “Muslim extremist” label on Pakistan. But people should keep in mind that the present Indian government has an extremist streak of its own. In the recent inter-communal riots that saw more than 1,000 people killed, the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) Party Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vapaycee blamed the violence on Muslims, who he claimed “do not want to live with others.” Narendra Modi, local BJP leader in Gujarat, epicenter for the riots, said the anger of Hindus was “understandable.”
The BJP is closely tied to the RSS, a shadowy Hindu extremist group associated with the assassination of India’s founder, Mahatma Ghandi. The RSS runs more than 20,000 private schools in India to persue its goal of “Hindutva” or creating an all-Hindu society. The RSS, and its close ally, the World Hindu Council, led the inter-communal riots that destroyed the Barbi Mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 and led to tens of thousands of deaths across India, the vast bulk of them Muslims. The present Home Minister, L.K. Advanti, led the movement to destroy the mosque and build a temple to Hindu god Ram in its place.
In short, this is not as simple as “civilized good guys” vs “terrorist bad guys.”
The solution to reducing tensions in South Asia is not more weapons, but a serious international effort to resolve the 55-year old standoff between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Reducing that complex business to black and white “end terrorism” formulas, and feeding an arms race on the sub-continent, could end up getting an awful lot of people killed.