6 November 2017

The Arms Race in Asia

There is no region that is more important to the security and economic prosperity of the world today than Asia.  As home to 56% of the world’s population, and 35% of the world’s economic output, Asia is playing an ever-greater role in the world.  Meanwhile, Asia is also home to many of the countries that are increasing their arms spending at a rate that is much higher than their counterparts in other regions, and the region as a whole now accounts for 27% of global spending on defense.  For a number of decades, it was an outside power, the United States, that played the dominant military role in Asia, and this helped to keep defense spending levels relatively stable across much of the region.  However, the balance of power in Asia is shifting, due largely to the fact that China is retaking its position as the leading economic and military power in Asia.  As a result, countries across the region are scrambling to prepare and equip their militaries for the potential challenges that could be posed by an increasingly powerful and assertive China.

Across Asia, defense budgets are expanding rapidly.  In some cases, countries have been building up their military capabilities for decades, while in others, defense spending is only now beginning to rise at an appreciable rate.  Overall, defense spending in Asia has risen from $142 billion in constant US dollars in 1990 to $450 billion today, a rate of growth unmatched anywhere else in the world.  Sure, the United States still spends far more on its armed forces than the entire region of Asia combined, but its military assets are scattered all around the world, even as the US increasingly views Asia as a region vital to its security.  The one country that has been able to close the defense spending gap with the United States somewhat over the past few decades is China, where defense spending has risen from $38 billion in constant US dollars in 1990 to $215 billion today, an amount three times greater than that of all other countries in the world apart from the United States.  Another major military player in Asia is Japan, where despite having pacifism enshrined in its constitution, the country has managed to develop one of the world’s best-equipped military forces.  India too is expanding its defense spending rapidly, but it faces challenges on multiple fronts that prevent it from focusing solely on the threat from a more powerful China.  In fact, all across the region, defense spending is rising and armed forces are being prepared for an increasingly uncertain future.

Clearly, the recent rise in defense spending in Asia is being driven by the shifting balance of power in the region that has resulted from the dramatic expansion of Chinese military and economic power in recent years.  In 1990, China accounted for just 15% of all defense spending in Asia, and its level of defense spending was less than 4% of that of the United States.  Today, China accounts for 48% of all defense spending in Asia, and it now spends fully 35% of what the US spends on its armed forces, a gap that continues to shrink.  Furthermore, China’s military is rapidly transforming from one that was largely a land-based defense force to one that can fight multiple forms of warfare at a much greater distance from China’s borders.  While issues such as North Korea’s provocations and the threat of terrorism may dominate the headlines, these are but a sideshow to the real threat to the region, which is the potential domination of Asia by an increasingly-powerful China.  As a result, not only are the other countries in Asia moving to increase defense spending, but they are also seeking ways to improve the level of cooperation with the armed forces of other countries in the region.

Without question, Asia’s influence in the world is at a higher level than at any time during the past two centuries.  Therefore, Asian security issues not only have a bearing solely on Asia, but much further afield.  For the region to remain stable and secure, it must find a way to successfully achieve a balance of power that is acceptable to all of the major players in Asia.  However, the region is full of flashpoints that have the potential to spark a conflict between two or more of the leading powers in the region.  These flashpoints include North Korea and the South China Sea, two issues that involve both the United States and China and could bring these two countries and their allies into open conflict.  Moving forward, the United States still has a major role to play in maintaining the balance of power in Asia, but its commitment to this role has been questioned by many of its allies in the region, particularly over the past year.  In the meantime, regional defense spending appears likely to continue to rise in the years ahead, potentially adding to the already considerable risks levels facing Asia and making this region’s stability and security a global concern.