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Asia

Asia accounts for 'nearly a third' of global arms imports

Five of the top 10 largest importers of major weapons are in Asia: India, China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore. They account for 30 percent of the global volume of arms imports, SIPRI's Siemon Wezeman tells DW.

India accounted for 34 percent of the volume of arms imports to Asia, more than three times as much as China, whose arms imports actually decreased by 42 percent between 2005–2009 and 2010–14, a new report released on Monday, March 16, by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), reveals.

But the reason for the decline is rather linked to the fact that China has also become a producer of major weapons, making it less dependent on imports. It has actually become a significant arms supplier, with exports increasing by 143 percent in the past five years. In fact, it has overtaken Germany as the world's third-biggest arms exporter, supplying weapons to 35 countries, with most arms going to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the institute stated.

Other Asian countries, however, generally still depend on imports of major weapons, which have strongly increased and will remain high in the near future. For instance, during the past five years, India has accounted for 15 percent of global arms imports, China (five percent), Pakistan (four percent), South Korea (three percent), and Singapore (three percent), according to SIPRI.

A Chinese Coast Guard vessel (R) passes near the Chinese oil rig, Haiyang Shi You 981 (L) in the South China Sea, about 210 km (130 miles) from the coast of Vietnam June 13, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Nguyen Minh)

Wenzenman: 'Many Asian countries feel they are in a region that is not particularly safe or stable'

In a DW interview, Siemon Wezeman, a SIPRI expert on arms and military expenditure, talks about what Asian countries are buying the weapons for, who their suppliers are, and whether we are witnessing an arms race in the region.

DW: How many major weapons did Asian countries import last year?

Siemon Wezeman: Forty-eight per cent of all major weapons delivered in the last five years (2010-14) went to Asia and Oceania. That is 37 percent higher than in the previous five-year period (2005-2009). South Asian states, mainly India, stood for almost half of all Asian imports.

Why do Asian countries buy weapons on such a scale?

Many Asian countries feel they are in a region that is not particularly safe or stable. There are many conflicts and tensions between countries (e.g. India-Pakistan; South China Sea; Thailand-Cambodia; Korean Peninsula) or within countries (e.g. Afghanistan; India; Pakistan; Myanmar, Philippines; Thailand). Many countries have a high perception of threat and feel they need to have strong armed forces.

At the same time many Asian states have growing economies and can thus afford increased spending on weapons. Many Asian countries also do not have an arms industry that is capable of developing and producing the weapons, certainly not the major weapons, needed - they thus have to import complete weapons or at least designs to be produced under license.

There are also more mundane needs for armed forces providing internal security (e.g. anti-piracy, anti-smuggling of disaster relief). It must be kept in mind that many Asian countries are very large (e.g. Indonesia covers an area almost as large as Europe) and that for those internal security, policing or disaster relief tasks a substantial number of helicopters, patrol ships and other weapons are needed.

Lastly, some weapons seem to be bought as much for prestige reasons than for anything else. Several countries in the region (e.g. India, Indonesia or China) see themselves as regional or even global powers and feel that needs to be "proven" by having strong and modern military forces equipped with advanced and powerful weapons (e.g. aircraft carriers are a 'good' symbol of military strength).

What kind of weaponry are these countries importing?

Everything ranging from rifles to aircraft carriers. SIPRI data only include what we define as "major weapons," and in that category Asian countries have an appetite for all types of weapons. Aircraft and warships form a significant part of the imports.

One of the most important trends is that Asian countries buy more and more weapons that give them long-range capabilities: long-range combat aircraft with long-range missiles; large combat ships, including ocean-going submarines and for China and India aircraft carriers; amphibious ships; tanker aircraft, transport aircraft, large transport aircraft and other equipment that extends the long-range "power-projection" capabilities of armed forces.

Who are the major weapon suppliers for Asia countries?

The USA and Russia are both major suppliers of weapons to Asia and Oceania. But other suppliers, including the EU members and China, also play a significant role. You will also see that almost all suppliers, large and small, are well represented on any of the many arms fairs in the region, marketing their products on what is generally seen the most important export market globally.

What political impact is this having on regional security?

Some observers have labeled it an arms race. Of course there is an action-reaction pattern. This is normal in any military acquisition, spending and policy decision: a country will do something (e.g. buy a certain type of weapon) and another country will feel the action changes some status quo and upsets a balance, and it will react (e.g. by also buying new weapons).

The problem is when the first country feels threatened and reacts by buying more, a spiral of action-reaction may result - an arms race - that may get out of control and be damaging economically or even lead to one party believing it has an upper hand and is at that point strong enough to use its military power (before the other party has caught up).

However, more important than the question if this is an arms race is that countries acquire more weapons which they clearly intend to use to patrol their borders and their claimed borders, economic zone and national interests. This in a region that lacks clear and strong mechanisms for peaceful solutions to conflicting interests.

It is not difficult to imagine how China will use its improved capabilities to further its interests in the South China Sea and how other claimants such as Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines will do the same - putting more forces in a more assertive manner in a disputed area without very clear rules what to do when those forces meet.

Indian army soldiers watch the display of an Agni-2 missile during an Army Day parade in New Delhi, India, in this Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004 file photograph (AP Photo/Gurinder Osan)

Wenzenman: 'South Asian states, mainly India, stood for almost half of all Asian imports'

Countries also may look at their improved military capabilities and see them as the solution for issues with their neighbors. India may react to incursions of what India calls "terrorists" from Pakistan by attacking training camps in Pakistan (as India has threatened to do) or Japan or South Korea may think of pre-empting a North Korean (nuclear) attack.

Aside from the security aspect, of course there is the fact that the arms imports are costly, and even when most Asian countries do not spend too much of their GDP on the military, also most Asian countries have still high poverty levels and a lack of development.

What trends to do you see for Asian arms imports in 2015?

Arms imports by Asian countries will remain high in the coming years. The threat perceptions will remain, economies keep growing (and funds will thus be available), and local design and production capacities will generally not grow extremely (only in China and South Korea the local design capabilities are likely to grow enough to change arms acquisition a bit more from local industry than from imports).

Siemon Wezeman is a Senior Researcher with the Arms and Military Expenditure Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).