IN 1989, arms sales to the Third World slid to their lowest point in years, according to a new study from the Congressional Research Service. At $29.3 billion dollars, the value of '89 third-world arms-purchase agreements was less than half the $61.4 billion reached in the peak year of 1982. One reason for the slide: the end of the Iran-Iraq war.
``Whether this war's end and the scaling back of other regional conflicts such as the civil wars in Afghanistan and Angola will lead to a continuing decline in third-world arms transfers remains to be seen,'' says the report by CRS defense specialist Richard Grimmett.
High debt burdens and the need to absorb weapons bought in the early '80s are other causes of the downward trend in arms sales, according to Grimmett. Sales in 1988 were $39.8 billion, in constant dollars.
The Soviet Union and the United States remained the top two providers of weapons to the third world. Both countries saw the value of their arms sales slip but their market share increase. The USSR accounted for 38.4 percent of the market, up from 36.8 percent in 1988. The US share was 26 percent, up from 23 percent in '88.
Western Europe, counted as a single entity, was the third-ranking arms supplier last year. China slipped to fourth. The Chinese emerged as major players in the world arms market in the 1980s, based largely on the strength of sizable shipments to both Iran and Iraq.
``Given China's need and desire to obtain hard currency, it seems likely to continue to pursue arms sales opportunities with enthusiasm,'' Grimmett writes.
The latter years of the 1980s saw many of the traditional big weapons-buyers in the Middle East scale back their arms purchases. Measuring the period 1986-89 against 1982-85, Saudi Arabia arms purchases declined nearly 49 percent. Iraqi arms imports fell 43 percent; Libyan imports dropped 30.3 percent.
Saudi Arabia was still No. 1 in the world in actual arms deliveries last year, receiving $4.9 billion worth of weapons. Afghanistan, one of the few nations whose purchases are fast increasing, was second in deliveries, with $3.8 billion. India was third, at $3.2 billion, and Iraq fourth, at $1.9 billion.
Last year was one of tremendous change in the world, with a significant reduction of tensions between East and West. It's not yet clear whether these changes will filter down to developing nations and result in even more change in the third-world arms market.
With domestic business declining, arms suppliers might compete more fiercely for third-world business. ``Current data suggest that any such competition, if it develops, would be over a smaller third-world arms marketplace than existed in the past,'' the CRS concludes.