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Jan. 10: Is South America on the brink of an arms race?

On 15 September 2009 US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that Venezuela’s recent arms acquisitions outpaced those of any other country in South America and raised questions about whether an arms race was looming in the region. While it is important to draw attention to disturbing military trends, identifying workable solutions to them depends on characterizing them correctly. So are Clinton’s fears justified?

Two recent events sharpened concerns about South American arms acquisitions: Venezuela’s plan to acquire air defence systems and battle tanks, supported by a $2.2 billion loan from Russia, and Brazil’s agreement with France, worth $12 billion, for a submarine development programme and for the construction of helicopters. Both were signed in September 2009. These are only the latest in a series of major South American arms purchases, primarily by Brazil, Chile and Venezuela, which helped to nearly double the value of arms transfers to the region between the five-year periods 1999-2003 and 2004-2008, according to SIPRI estimates.

Overall military spending in the region is also increasing. According to SIPRI data, South American military expenditure grew by 50 per cent in real terms during the 10-year period 1999-2008. The country whose military spending grew the most in the five years to 2008 was Ecuador, followed by Venezuela, Colombia and Chile. Brazil—the major spender in the region—began to increase its expenditure only in 2007, but at the alarming rate of 50 per cent from 2006 to 2008.

Such patterns have been interpreted by some analysts as signs of a regional arms race. However, while they are ominous for several reasons, they are not in themselves indications that an arms race is developing. To talk of an arms race between countries usually implies that their military build-ups are competitive and motivated by a perceived threat from the other. However, there is good reason to believe that the current arms build-ups in South America are mostly driven by other factors.

One motivation frequently cited by government officials is the modernization or replacement of old arsenals. This is credible, as much of the existing military equipment in the region is 20 or more years old and obsolete. That South American countries are stepping up such projects now is largely thanks to the boost that several countries' state coffers have received from recent high international prices of commodities like copper, oil and soya. Other factors, particularly pertinent in the case of Brazil, include efforts to promote their domestic arms industries—for example, all but the first of the submarines Brazil is buying from France will be built in Brazil with transferred technology—and long-standing competition for regional leadership.

At the level of individual acquisitions, the Brazilian Government has denied claims that some of its procurement decisions in 2007 were made with an eye on Venezuela’s military build-up. Peru has often shown concern about Chile’s military acquisitions and its latest purchases could be seen as partly in response to Chile’s. However, in Peru’s case other factors such as an armed forces modernization programme cited in its 2006 Basic Defence Core strategy document are more likely motivations. And Chile's spending patterns are unlikely to be shaped by those of Peru, whose military spending is barely a quarter of Chile’s. Guaranteed revenue from copper exports is more likely to be driving Chile’s acquisitions.

One possible exception is the case of Colombia and Venezuela. While Colombia’s military spending increases have not been directed against external threats but rather linked to its internal conflict, Venezuela’s recent acquisitions may in part be related to tensions with its neighbour. A series of developments have created an atmosphere of mistrust between the two countries, among them the 2008 Colombian military incursion into Ecuador, which prompted Venezuela to deploy troops to its borders, and the announcement in August 2009 of a new Colombian-US military pact that would grant the USA access to military bases on Colombian territory. This deal was strongly criticized by Venezuela. If Colombia were now to respond to Venezuela’s increasing military purchases, an arms race could develop.

Even in the absence of an ongoing arms race in South America, the current high levels of military spending and arms imports are reasons for concern in a region plagued by poverty and social inequality where, with the exception of Colombia and to a much lesser extent Peru, there are no armed conflicts or major traditional security threats. In most cases it has hard to see any justification for such a use of state funds—South America has more pressing needs.

Internal transparency and accountability in military spending and arms imports need to be improved across the region. These should include proper debates on government spending priorities. In addition, transparency and open dialogue between South American countries would greatly reduce the chances of an arms race developing in the future.

About the authors

Carina Solmirano (Argentina) is a Researcher with the SIPRI Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme. Her research interests include peace and security in Latin America, disarmament and arms control, and security sector reform. She holds an MA in International Security (2006) and is currently a PhD candidate in International Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado. She has worked at the Argentinian Senate, the Organization of American States, the NGO Asociacion para Politicas Publicas and the University of Denver.

Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman (United Kingdom) is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme, where he is responsible for monitoring data on military expenditure worldwide. Previously he was a Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England, working in the field of defence and peace economics. His publications include ‘The demand for military expenditure in developing countries’, International Review of Applied Economics (Jan. 2003, co-author), and a chapter on the Brazilian arms industry in Arms Trade and Economic Development: Theory and Policy in Offsets (Routledge, 2004).


Dr Sam Perlo-Freeman is an Associate Senior Researcher at SIPRI.