China's aircraft carrier Liaoning (C) takes part in a military drill of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in the western Pacific Ocean, April 18, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer
The Liaoning (C) takes part in a military drill of Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy in April 2018. Photo: Reuters

Asia’s arms race is slowing, according to the latest study of global defense spending, but don’t read too much into the data. China’s strategic shadow looms so large over the region that it can even confuse the statisticians.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has calculated Asia and Oceania invested a combined US$477 billion on military forces in 2017, or 27% of global expenditure, second only to the Americas (US$695 billion).

Five of the top 15 global spenders were in Asia/Oceania: China (US$228 billion), India (US$64 billion), Japan (US$45.4 billion), South Korea (US$39.2 billion) and Australia (US$27.5 billion). In the broader region, Saudi Arabia spent US$69.4 billion in 2017, Russia US$66.3 billion and Turkey US$18.2 billion.

Military budgets in Asia rose by 3.6% in 2017, the lowest hike since 2010 and well down on the average 5.9% annual growth seen since 2008. East Asia (4.1%) accounted for the biggest 2017 increase, after an average of 6.8% from 2008-17. Central and South Asia spent 3% more in 2017 and Southeast Asia only a blip 0.1% more. Oceania’s spending actually declined by 0.6% last year.

But when considering that China accounted for 48%, or nearly half, of all Asian defense spending in 2017, the picture quickly becomes distorted. Beijing budgeted a modest 5.6% more last year, its smallest increase since 2010 and well below its average annual growth of 11% over the period spanning 2008-17.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Picture taken April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

In contrast, every other major country apart from Japan boosted spending, hinting that regional figures will likely blow out once China resumes its buildup. There are signs that will happen soon.

China’s National People’s Congress was told in March that the national defense budget would rise by 8.1% to US$173.4 billion in 2018, though this is still only about 1.3% of China’s 2017 GDP.

Research group IHS Jane’s forecasted in a separate report that the region’s spending levels would return to pre-2017 levels within about two years.

“We still expect Asia-Pacific to be the driving force behind long-term growth in global defense spending,” said IHS Jane’s principal analyst Craig Caffrey. “Economic growth is still the main factor behind rising spending in Asia-Pacific, but we’re starting to see strategic factors play a more prominent role.”

Many of these revolve around China itself. The bigger Chinese budget will pay for higher wages for military personnel and improved training. But analysts believe Beijing is also preparing for potential trouble on its restive border with India, in the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait.

Countries on the other sides of these tensions are responding in kind. India boosted military spending by 5.5% in 2017, compared with an average 4.5% rise over 2008-17, partly to build better access to contested frontiers with China and Pakistan, but also to modernize equipment.

Indian army officers stand on vehicles displaying missiles during a Republic Day parade in New Delhi, January 26, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Altaf Hussain

Pakistan raised its military budget by 8% to US$10.7 billion in 2017, and a similar hike is likely this year. Islamabad complained to the United Nations last month that India’s defense spending was a threat to regional peace.

Taiwan’s defense spending rose by 7.1% to US$10.5 billion in 2017, signaling the end of a period of constraint dating back to the former Kuomintang government of Ma Ying-jeou, who sought tranquil relations with China. Not so with his successor, Ma Ying-jeou, who wants an independent state.

With China recently stepping up encirclement exercises around the island it considers a renegade province, Ma’s government is drawing up a strategic plan that will boost military spending by at least 20% to US$12.8 billion through 2025, mostly on frontline missile defenses, fighter jets and electronic warfare systems.

Japan, likewise worried about China’s incursions, will also spend more this year after its 2017 budget of US$45.4 billion was little changed from 2016.

Meanwhile, Southeast Asian nations are quietly expanding their defense capabilities as a fallback position in case negotiations collapse on China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

An undated photo shows two Chinese jet fighters during a military drill in the South China Sea. Photo AFP/Stringer

Frontline nations like the Philippines and Vietnam both raised their budgets by more than 4.0% in 2017. Indonesia, already a rising military power in the region, spent 12.2% more last year. IHS Jane’s said internal security, including counterinsurgency, has been the other driving force behind the region’s buildups.

Cambodia, whose autocratic regime relies heavily on the support of security services, lifted defense spending by an average 33.3% a year over the period spanning 2008-17; Myanmar, confronted by violence in its Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states, spent 4.0% more on its military in 2017.

There are hopes of reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the upcoming summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, but it hasn’t had any impact yet on defense spending. South Korea will hike its military outlay by 7.0% this year to almost US$40 billion, the biggest such boost since 2009.

North Korea, which is thought to spend about 24% of its annual budget on defense, has signaled a 15.9% increase, slightly less than recent levels. But as with most things in the hermit nuclear nation, there is probably more to the story than statistics show.

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