C Raja Mohan writes: In light of the Russia-Ukraine war, an opportunity to modernise India’s defence industry.
The war in Ukraine, which began a year ago this month, is accelerating the breakdown of familiar geopolitical antinomies, such as Europe and Asia.
Nothing illustrates the new landscape more powerfully than South Korea’s emergence as a major supplier of arms to Europe, which is at war with itself.
Korea’s rise in the European theatre highlights two important new strategic trends. One, Asia has long ceased to be a passive theatre for rivalry among the Western powers. We are now beginning to see Asian powers contribute to European security. No wonder, the trans-Atlantic military alliance NATO is stepping up its engagement with Asian powers.
China, which churned out so much propaganda about India joining an ‘Asian NATO’ for nearly a decade-and-a-half, now has something real to chew on.
Two of Beijing’s most important neighbours and economic partners — South Korea and Japan — are not only bringing NATO into Asia, but also taking Asia to NATO’s frontlines with Russia.
Second, the idea that Europe and Asia are separate strategic theatres is becoming difficult to sustain. China’s alliance ‘without limits’ unveiled last year with Russia has broken through that mental block. The US has, in turn, responded by promoting greater cooperation between NATO and America’s Asian allies. NATO’s Madrid summit last June, which took place in the aftermath of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, saw the participation for the first time of Asian leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.
Last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg followed up the initiative by travelling to Seoul and Tokyo. His main message was simple: European and Asian security are deeply interconnected. And that NATO and Asia can help each other in dealing with the dangers from Russia and China.
In Seoul, he was pressing the South Korean leaders to start supplying arms directly to Ukraine. Right now South Korean arms are making their way to Ukraine through third countries or replenishing the arsenals of those sending their weapons to Kyiv. Domestic political opposition from the left and warnings from Moscow have made Seoul rather cautious about direct arms sales to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Korean arms sales to Europe are surging. Poland alone is expected to bury nearly $16 billion worth of arms from South Korea. Among the equipment to be supplied include tanks, howitzers, and fighter aircraft. Poland is not the only one that is looking to South Korea; Norway and Estonia are among other European states looking to Seoul to cope with the perceived security threats from Russia.
Korea is not the only one wading into the European arms bazaar. Locked in a grinding war that will turn one year old this month, Ukraine and Russia are running through arms and ammunition at a phenomenal rate.
Moscow’s neighbours to the West, which have long memories of Russian expansionism, are also arming themselves with new weapons. The Western and Russian arms industries are not geared to cope with the massive demand.
Our Western neighbour Pakistan is transferring ammunition to Ukraine as part of a major diplomatic effort to reset relations with the US that frayed badly under Imran Khan’s tenure. If the former PM seemed ready to back the Sino-Russian alliance, the current government is trying to correct that tilt.
Seoul’s sibling Pyongyang has joined the party — on the other side. Russia has turned to North Korea for the supply of winter clothing and ammunition. Iran has become a major supplier of drones to Russia. Turkey has supplied drones and more to Ukraine over the last year. Turkey has also been in the lead in trying to create diplomatic engagement between Ukraine and Russia.
A traditional trope in Asian discourse has been the idea that the great Western military-industrial complex manipulates poor innocent developing countries into spending their scarce resources on buying arms. The source of the problem was not just the ‘greed’ of the Western ‘merchants of death’.
As power struggles within and between the developing countries in the non-Western world turned violent and generated the demand for weapons in the post-colonial era, Western merchants provided the supplies.
But the arms bazaar is no longer exclusively Western. Asian powers are now important producers and traders of weapons. China is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world after the US, Russia, and France. Most of China’s arms exports are to the developing world and have yet to penetrate the developed markets. With many European countries passing laws not to sell arms to conflict zones, the demand for Asian weapons has only grown.
Korea, whose arms exports reached nearly $20 billion last year, is now ranked eighth on the list of arms exporters. Buoyed by the surge in the demand for its arms sales, Korea wants to quickly climb up the list. The capacity to deliver high-quality weapons at low cost and on short order has put Korea in a pivotal position.
India too is eager to export arms and there has been some progress in recent months. The export of Brahmos to the Philippines last year has been a major milestone in the country’s evolution as an arms producer. The largest destination for Indian arms exports is not the developing world, but the US. That has largely come from the Indian supply sub-assemblies to US weapons systems.
When it comes to selling in the markets of the Global South, India is struggling to fend off competition from the better-organised and more developed South Korean manufacturers. There has been much media speculation that India’s HAL has been close to clinching the contracts in Malaysia and Egypt for its Tejas fighters. In both places, the fighter and trainer aircraft built by Korea Aircraft Industries won the competition.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has also woken up the world’s third-largest economy, Japan, to rethink its security policies. Selling arms to friends and partners is among the many outcomes of Japan’s recent radical overhaul of its national defence policy. Although it had a powerful arms industry of its own that made a great impact during the Second World War, post-war pacifism bottled up its arms makers.
Japan has provided some non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine; it might be a while before Tokyo becomes a major arms exporter like South Korea. But Japan is preparing to boost its weapons sales over the longer term. Tokyo plans to double defence spending over the next five years. Japan is also tying up with European and American arms companies to develop fighter aircraft, missiles and drones for domestic use as well as exports.
For India, which is coping with the Chinese military challenge on its borders as well as in its waters as well as reducing its dependence on Russian weapons, the new and dynamic defence engagement between Europe and Asia opens up multiple opportunities. This includes the possibilities for modernising its rusty defence industrial base in partnership with friendly states.
India’s recent agreement with the US on expanding joint defence production and technology should be a precursor to a wider range of agreements with its European and Asian partners to transform India’s defence production and enhance its arms exports.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Delhi and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express