The geopolitical centre of gravity, as measured in arms spending and transfers, has shifted to Asia.
The top five arms importers over the last five years, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), are from Asia. And, led by deep-pocketed China, Asia is poised to overtake Europe for the first time in modern history in overall military spending.
The Cold War ended in Europe in the early 1990s. But Asia continues to buy and sell weapons as if the Cold War never went out of style.
The biggest pull factor for the global arms trade is now South Asia. India is the world's top weapons importer, accounting for 10 percent of the global total, with Russia as the top supplier. Pakistan is number three on the list, with China and the United States providing the bulk of the weapons.
After being the world's largest arms importer from 2002-2006, China is now surging as an arms exporter. But the top five global arms suppliers remain non-Asian countries. The United States accounts for nearly one-third of all military exports, with Russia at the number two spot, supplying nearly one-quarter. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom round out the list.
"Those top five have been at the top for decades," explains Paul Holtom, director of the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme. "If you go back to the SIPRI data from the 1950s, they were always there. The one thing we've noted is that their share is declining. So there is now competition with the dramatic increases of China."
So far, China's major purchaser is Pakistan. The two countries have teamed up to produce the JF-17 Thunder combat aircraft, a rival to the U.S. F-16. If other countries begin to purchase this big-ticket item – and several countries including Azerbaijan have so far expressed interest – then China will continue to rise in the ranks of arms exporters.
Other changes affecting arms sales in Asia include Japan's decision at the end of 2011 to further relax its 1967 ban on arms exports to facilitate participation in missile defence and fighter jet production.
South Korea, meanwhile, doubled its arms sales last year and is on pace to reach a record three billion dollars for 2012. As the United States executes its "Pacific pivot", it has asked allies to spend more money on the military either as part of burden-sharing or to promote the interoperability of allied weapons systems.
"Arms sales are following the general global shift in power to the Asia," explains Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Center for a New American Security.
"More impressive than the arms trade to and from Asia is the rising indigenous production capabilities. The qualitative advances in Asian arms are gradually leveling the playing field with arms produced in the United States and Europe. These trends are likely to continue, even if the pace varies from year to year. "
China's increased military spending is also driving up the regional numbers. According to theInternational Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Asia spent 262 billion dollars on military expenditures in 2011 (excluding Australia and New Zealand).
China accounts for approximately one-third of that figure. With 12 percent annual growth over the first decade of the 21st century, Chinese military spending may well surpass all of Asia combined by 2015, the research firm IHS reports.
For many years analysts resisted calling the increased military spending in Asia an arms race because the budget increases were not necessarily a response to the spending patterns of rival countries. But the dynamic is changing.
"If a country sees that a rival in a soft sense is acquiring a particular weapon system, it wants it as well," says Holtom. "It's the keeping-up with-the-Jones effect, and it's setting off some alarm bells because of the ability of these systems to project power."
Asia, moreover, is the locus of numerous simmering conflicts – between India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, and North and South Korea. Border issues, which are largely settled in Europe, continue to plague Asia, whether between China and India or over disputed islands between South Korea and Japan and between Japan and China. A multi-party dispute over islands and drilling rights in the South China Sea has resisted multilateral resolution.
The lingering global economic crisis has done little to dampen the arms race in Asia. The region, compared to Europe, has recovered economically. And many countries justify arms sales as a boon to their economies and a way to underwrite domestic military spending.
The United States, too, has rationalised arms sales as a way to compensate arms manufacturers who are losing Pentagon contracts at a time of austerity.
"U.S. companies have said that they're going to increase foreign sales by 25 percent to offset what they say are deep cuts in Pentagon spending, but which is really just a leveling off," explains William Hartung, the author of "Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex".
The arms export market doesn't necessarily translate into more U.S. jobs, as industry representatives claim.
"You may see some more competition in terms of offsets," adds Hartung. "In other words, if you buy our plane, we'll build part of it in your country or make investments in your country to compensate for your buying our equipment. But this undercut the jobs argument, since the manufacturers will be exporting some of these jobs."
In 2010, the world spent approximately 1.6 trillion dollars on global military expenditures. On Apr. 17, SIPRI will release its figures for 2011. The numbers for Asia will likely be up.
To coincide with the release of the SIPRI figures, the Global Day of Action on Military Spending (GDAMS) will take place in dozens of countries around the world. Participants will focus on the huge sums spent on the military at a time when the gap between rich and poor is widening and threats like climate change remain largely unaddressed.
"Major arms importers like India and Pakistan also have some of the most urgent development needs," explains GDAMS organiser Noah Gimbel. "The people taking part in GDAMS demand a different set of priorities both nationally and globally.
"On the one hand, the combination of climate change and increased militarisation is certain to exacerbate human crises in nutrition, health and education. But on the other hand, if seriously addressed, these problems can be solved on the cheap compared to the more than 1.6 trillion dollars spent worldwide on war and preparations for war."
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