Six of the world's ten largest arms importers are in Asia and Oceania, a new SIPRI report finds. The region has accounted for 46 percent of global imports over the past five years. How does this impact regional security?
The international trade volume of major weapons has grown continuously over the past decade, rising by 14 percent between the five-year periods 2006-10 and 2011-15, said a February 22 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Driving the ever-increasing demand have been mainly Asian and Oceanian countries. India tops the list, accounting for 14 percent of global arms imports, followed by China (4.7 percent), Australia (3.6 percent), Pakistan (3.3 percent), Vietnam (2.9 percent) and South Korea (2.6 percent).
This means that as tensions mount in the Asia Pacific, these countries are pouring vast amounts of resources into modernizing their militaries. "China continues to expand its military capabilities with imported and domestically-produced weapons," said Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program. "Neighboring states such as India, Japan and Vietnam are also significantly strengthening their armed forces."
Vietnam, for instance, jumped from being the 43rd largest importer in 2006-10 to the eighth largest in 2011-15, increasing weapons imports by a staggering 699 percent. The report also says Russia accounted for 93 percent of the deliveries to the Southeast Asian nation, which included eight combat aircraft, four fast attack craft and four submarines armed with land-attack missiles.
"With these acquisitions, Hanoi aims primarily at protecting its maritime interests and strengthening its defense against potential external threats, such as China's augmented assertiveness in the South China Sea," Sophie-Charlotte Fischer, a Bangkok-based arms control expert and Mercator Fellow on International Affairs, told DW.
Overall, arms imports by states in the region increased by 26 percent in the past ten years, with Asia and Oceania accounting for 46 percent of global imports in 2011-15, said SIPRI.
South Asia alone accounted for 44 percent of the regional total. The main reason for this is India, which has been the world's largest importer of major arms over the past five years. Asia's second-most populous country buys three times as many weapons as either China or Pakistan, its regional rivals. India and Vietnam, for instance, are two of the world's largest importers of naval equipment, especially submarines.
"A major reason for the high level of imports is that India's arms industry has thus far largely failed to produce competitive indigenously designed weapons," said SIPRI. Since 2011, Russia has supplied 70 percent of India's arms imports, followed by the US (14 percent) and Israel (4.5 percent).
India is currently trying to wean itself off foreign imports. But as Ben Moores, a senior defense expert at analytics firm IHS, pointed out, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, barring a major overhaul of the way in which private companies are allowed to compete against state-owned industries.
China, the largest economy in the region, has the second-largest military budget globally - after that of the US, which spends almost three times as much. But the East Asian giant remains partly dependent on imports for some key weapons and components, including large transport aircraft, helicopters and engines for aircraft, vehicles and ships. For instance, says SIPRI, engines have accounted for 30 percent of China's imports since 2011.
Nonetheless, the Chinese are increasingly capable of producing their own advanced weapons, thus rendering their country less dependent on imports. China has decreased the number of weapon imports by 25 percent over the past ten years, according to the Stockholm-based institute.
"China's plans to move forward with the modernization of its domestic defense industry and to advance independent innovative power, as mentioned in the 2015 Defense White Paper, will further support this trend," said Fischer.
IHS analyst Moores agrees this view, but underlines that while Beijing is becoming increasingly independent of, say, Russian imports, it will still need foreign-made engines over the short to medium term.
In any case, China has almost doubled its weapons exports in the past five years, accounting for 5.9 percent of global arms supplies. The country also surpassed Germany two years ago to become the world's third-largest arms supplier, with exports increasing by 139 percent over the past five years.
Beijing supplies weapons to 37 countries, with most arms going to Pakistan (35 percent), followed by Bangladesh and Myanmar, which account for 20 and 16 percent respectively. "This means that states neighboring India are becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese arms," said Moores.
And this trend is set to continue as analysts forecast a further increase in regional defense spending in the coming years. A December 2015 IHS report estimates that the Asia-Pacific nations' collective defense spending will jump from $435 billion in 2015 to around $533 billion by 2020, meaning that the region is set to account for a third of global military spending within the next five years.
"There are several large countries in Asia that will keep importing at high levels, and many smaller ones that also will do so. Most have substantial ongoing arms procurement contracts for imported weapons or have new contracts signed already. This alone will keep Asia’s arms imports high," Wezeman told DW.
But what is driving the arms build-up? One reason for this development is that while most Asia-Pacific countries are experiencing rapid economic expansion, their military industrial bases have struggled to keep up. "Even Japan builds most of its aircraft under license, and South Korea has only recently started to sell its own military aviation platforms," said Wezeman.
On top of that, many Asian countries are embroiled in a slew of territorial spats. For instance, relations between India and Pakistan have been strained for decades. The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Muslim-majority Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.
Tensions have flared in recent years between the two Koreas as well as over the South China Sea (SCS), a key waterway through which over $5 trillion of global maritime trade passes every year. China lays claim to most of the SCS, arguing that it is asserting its so-called "historic rights" to maritime resources in the area. This has led to territorial feuds with neighboring nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia, which lay competing claims.
"All the other countries in the region are buying weapons in reaction to China. China is both leading and driving the surge in military imports in the Asia-Pacific," Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia security expert and professor at the Washington-based National War College, told DW.
In this context, Wezeman stressed that in order to enforce their claims, defend the disputed areas under their control or protect their trade and economy, Asian countries acquire weapons. In fact, recently released civilian satellite imagery reportedly shows that the Chinese military has deployed two batteries of an advanced surface-to-air missile system to one of its contested islands in the SCS, a move seen by the US and SCS claimants as a significant military escalation on China's part.
Moreover, explained analyst Fischer, the United States' presence in the SCS and contradicting views on the freedom of the seas have created mounting tensions between Washington and Beijing.
"To counter external threats and to protect its interests, China has made significant investments in the development of its anti-access/area denial capabilities (A2/AD) over the past years," added Fischer. "The situation is further complicated by the US' long-standing security cooperation with other countries in the region, like the Philippines."
The security dilemma
There are strong indications that tensions over the SCS could provoke a full-scale regional arms race. This became evident in the latest defense spending statistics, which indicate that, of the ten countries globally whose defense budgets grew fastest in 2015, four border the SCS: the Philippines, Indonesia, China and Vietnam.
In light of this development, Moores argues that regional players with a vested interest in the SCS, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, will increasingly look to Europe and the US for more advanced naval equipment. At the same time, he says, South Korea and Japan will increasingly seek to strike bilateral development deals in the region to support their exports.
"The driver of this arms race is a classic security dilemma. That is, the attempt by one country to increase its own security by increasing its military strength has the effect of creating insecurity in neighboring states," James D. J. Brown, an expert on international affairs at Temple University's campus in Tokyo, told DW.
These neighbors then respond by increasing their own military capabilities, thereby neutralizing any advantage initially gained by the first country. Further increases in military strength then follow, creating a spiral of insecurity and a dangerous arms race.
This so-called "circle of acquisitions" may lead to an arms race which, aside from being expensive, may also lead to alternative responses from countries that can't keep up.
"Alternative responses would hopefully be a realization that more is to be gained by solving issues in a peaceful manner, building trust, confidence and mutual dependency," said Wezeman. However, he warned, Asia doesn't have too many mechanisms to organize such peaceful solutions. And it may not yet have the mindset for them either.