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Asia Defence Spending tops Europe

Asia Defence Spending tops Europe

16 March 2013

Last week’s Military Balance report by the Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) pointed to a dramatic change in military expenditure between Asia and Europe.

For the first time in history, Asian countries outspent European countries in defence in 2012. This was largely due to cuts in European budgets and partly due to rising tensions in Asia.

For almost a decade Asian countries have been spending more on defence due to their buoyant economies. According to the report, China was now the second-largest defence spender in the world and if it could sustain economic growth, it could match US defence in 15 years. The US, however, still accounted for 45% of global defence spending.

The report noted that China's defence spending in real terms rose 8.3% last year while in Asia as a whole, spending rose 5% to reach nearly $290 billion. At the same time, nominal defence spending among European NATO members had shrunk 25% to 2006 levels.

China’s indigenous capacity to produce advanced military equipment is making the PLA a more formidable force. China’s growing strategic reach was illustrated by the arrival of its first aircraft carrier in September and new fighter plane and naval capabilities. But tensions in the region have caused other powers to spend more on defence.

North East Asia has had to cope with a belligerent North Korea. Pyongyang successfully launched a rocket in December then, in February, for the third time tested a nuclear device. North Korea has been building a plutonium stockpile sufficient for several nuclear weapons and has the world's third-largest chemical weapons arsenal and possibly biological weapons.  Japan and South Korea were trying to build their defences against North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes. Japan and China are in dispute over islands in the East China Sea. Continuing tensions in the South China Sea have unnerved several Southeast Asian governments, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, further motivating their attempts to improve their military capabilities. India, whose heavy reliance on imports makes it one of the largest defence markets, continued to build capabilities in face of threats from Pakistan and China

Across East Asia, advanced military systems such as anti-ship missiles, new submarines, advanced combat aircraft and cruise missiles are proliferating in a region lacking security mechanisms that could defuse crises. Bilateral military to military ties are often only embryonic. There is a tangible risk of accidental conflict and escalation, particularly in the absence of a strong tradition of military confidence-building measures. The multiplicity of threats in Asia, as different countries take action to counter others, mean "there is substantial evidence of action-reaction dynamics taking hold and influencing regional states' military programs."

The IISS, however, played down Washington's planned "pivot" to Asia, saying that it had announced only limited new military deployments there while reducing in its forces in Europe. "But as far as Asia was concerned there was less to this rebalance than first appeared," the report said. . It will of course be important in the longer term, but the rebalance should mainly be seen as a signal that the US will remain engaged in Asia-Pacific security, reflecting not just US economic ties to the region but also the emergence of China as a regional competitor in both economic and military terms.

For western states traditionally seen as net providers of security, responses to crises are complicated by declining finances for defence, as well as for diplomacy and aid. While the US, even in the current difficulties, stresses its commitment to Asia, it will be difficult to see how its most important partners in Europe will be able credibly to pivot with the US to this part of the world. This should give policy makers in the EU food for thought.