The new arms race in Asia

Asia is in the middle of an unprecedented arms race. The region today is not only the biggest engine of global economic growth but also the site of the world’s fiercest arms race, at a time when many others in the world are spending less on the military. This old-fashioned arms race is what Robert Kaplan, author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, calls “one of the most under-reported stories in the elite media in decades.”

China’s military build-up is leading the trend. China is responsible for the lion’s share of the military spending increase in Asia. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Beijing’s defense spending has risen eightfold since 1995 and is now the world’s second-biggest spender on the military – in 2012, China alone accounted for more than 10 percent of global military expenditure, more than Russia and Great Britain combined.

“No matter how often China has emphasized the idea of a peaceful rise,” the London-based Economist highlighted, “the pace and nature of its military modernization inevitably causes alarm. The country is on course to become the world’s largest military spender. And if China cannot pursue its own interests within the liberal world order, it will become more awkward and potentially belligerent. That is when things could get nasty.”

But China is not the only driver of a regional arms race. Asia, including East, South and Southeast Asia, together has spent 62 percent more on military in the last decade. As David Pilling of the Financial Times summarized, “Less understood is the effect China’s military build-up is having on Asia as a whole. In 2012, for the first year in modern times, Asian states spent more on defense than European ones. From India to South Korea and from Vietnam to Malaysia, governments in the region are ramping up defense spending. Even pacifist Japan, which for years has been cutting its defense outlays, has recently started to reverse the trend as it reorients its defense posture towards what it perceives as a growing Chinese threat.”

Today, the world’s five top arms importers are all in Asia, according to a recent SIPRI report: India, China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore. And in 2012 India was the world’s leading arms purchaser and New Delhi’s military budget increased 17 percent in 2013. India is also developing a long-range ballistic missile system capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads and New Delhi has one of the world’s largest naval building programs – currently there are 45 warships and submarines under construction.

South Korea, too, has ramped up its defense capabilities and has just successfully tested its first long-range cruise missile. Malaysia’s defense spending has more than doubled since 2000. Singapore, the smallest state in Southeast Asia, now has the biggest air force in the region. Even Japan, which has always kept its defense spending under 1 percent of its GDP, is getting into the race – Tokyo has vowed a 2.8 percent increase in defense spending in 2014-15. And across Asia, procurements of submarines are multiplying – altogether, Asian nations are planning to purchase 110 submarines in the coming decade.

In such an increasingly volatile security environment, almost every nation in Asia is trying to build up its capacity in the air and on the sea. As a result, any meaningful regional security agreement, for example, on North Korea’s nuclear program, has become increasingly difficult, if not completely impossible, to achieve.

Moreover, as John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus,suggested, “because of these budget priorities, the region will have fewer resources and less political will to address other pressing threats, such as climate change, which cannot be defeated with fighter jets or the latest generation of battle ship.”

Most importantly, the new and extensive acquisitions of advanced weaponries have not made the region any safer. “The continued increase in military spending by countries in Asia and the massive influx of arms into the region are both symptoms and drivers of conflict,” says Feffer, “until and unless the region restrains its appetite for military upgrades, the risk of clashes and even all-out war will remain high.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.