NEW DELHI – In its race to join the club of international powers, India has reached another milestone -- it's now the world's largest weapons importer.
A Swedish think tank that monitors global arms sales said Monday that India's weapons imports had overtaken China's, as the South Asian nation pushes ahead with plans to modernize its military, counter Beijing's influence and gain international clout.
"India has ambitions to become first a continental and (then) a regional power," said Rahul Bedi, a South Asia analyst with London-based Jane's Defense Weekly. "To become a big boy, you need to project your power."
According to the report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India accounted for 9 percent of all international arms imports in the period from 2006 to 2010, and it is expected to keep the top spot for the foreseeable future.
"Just from what they have already ordered, we know that in the coming few years India will be the top importer," said Siemon Wezeman, a senior fellow at the institute.
Indian Defense Ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar declined to comment on the report before he had a chance to read it.
China dropped to second place, with 6 percent of global imports, as it continued to build up its domestic arms industry, something India has so far failed to do, Wezeman said.
The United States was the largest arms exporter, followed by Russia and Germany, according to the report.
The institute measures arms transactions over a five-year period to take into account the long time lag between orders and delivery of arms.
India's investment comes amid its rising concerns about China's regional power and its designs over vital Indian Ocean shipping lanes, which New Delhi sees as part of its sphere of influence.
It is spending billions of dollars on fighter jets and aircraft carriers to modernize its air force and navy. Tensions also linger over unresolved border issues with China which led to war in 1962.
India also remains in its traditional faceoff with neighboring Pakistan, with which it has fought three wars.
With its booming economy and growing power, India has been pushing for a greater international role, including a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. To buttress its claim, Bedi said, a modernized Indian military would need to take part in more global operations, helping countries suffering from natural calamities and joining peacekeeping missions.
India's defense budget for the coming year is 1.5 trillion rupees ($32.5 billion), a 40 percent increase from two years before. It imports more than 70 percent of its arms.
The vast majority of those imports, 82 percent, come from Russia, which has long been India's supplier of choice, the report said. But other countries have been pushing for a chunk of the lucrative market, with world leaders streaming here in recent months, in part to push defense deals.
During British Prime Minister David Cameron's July visit, the two countries announced a nearly $1.1 billion deal for India to buy 57 Hawk advanced trainer jets. During President Barack Obama's November visit, a $4.1 billion sale of 10 C-17 transport aircraft was announced.
France and India moved closer to finalizing a $2.1 billion Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft upgrade deal during President Nicolas Sarkozy's December visit, and a few weeks later India and Russia agreed to jointly develop a fifth generation fighter aircraft during President Dmitry Medvedev's visit.
India is awaiting delivery of a $2.3 billion rebuilt aircraft carrier from Russia -- as it builds another carrier itself -- and has ordered six submarines worth $4.5 billion from France.
With India expected to spend $80 billion over the next decade to upgrade its military, more plums await.
India is in the market to buy 126 fighter jets, a deal worth $11 billion, and about 200 helicopters worth another $4 billion. It also has plans to buy large amphibious landing ships at $300 million to $500 million each and is discussing another $10 billion submarine order, Wezeman said.
"The kind of purchases that India is buying, no country in the world buys," Bedi said. "What is in the pipeline is huge."
India last topped the list in 1992, just after its main arms supplier, the Soviet Union, collapsed.
Through much of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Indian military stopped making major purchases, leaving the country with an aging and increasingly decrepit arsenal.
When the country refocused on its military in recent years, the needs were enormous, said Ajai Shukla, an Indian military analyst and former army colonel.
"A lot of this buying you are seeing is this backlog of replacement that you should have seen happening in a phased and staggered manner," he said. "It's all happening now in a bunch."