RICHARD A. BITZINGER. US, China cash in on Asia’s growing appetite for arms.

Jul 11, 2018

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has just released its data on the global arms trade for 2017, and it is big news for Asia as a whole, and for China and the United States in particular.

In the first place, SIPRI confirms that Asia (including the Indian subcontinent and Oceania) has remained the world’s single largest arms market for the past decade. According to the institute, Asia accounted for a plurality (42%) of all international arms transfers for the period 2013-2017, easily outpacing the Middle East (the world’s other large arms market) at 32%.

While Asia’s market share was down slightly from 2008-2012 (when it took 46%), its arms transfers were actually up during the more recent period, as arms exports have increased globally.

Some of the world’s largest arms buyers are in Asia. According to SIPRI, during the period 2013-2017, five of the 10 biggest arms importers were in the region: India, China, Indonesia, Australia, and Pakistan. Vietnam, South Korea, and Taiwan were among the top 15 largest arms importers. India, in fact, alone accounted for 12% of allarms transfers during this period, maintaining its position as the world’s largest arms buyer for the past several years (just ahead of Saudi Arabia). India’s arms imports increased by 24% between the periods 2008-2012 and 2013-2017.

All these arms purchases have been enabled by a continuing upward trend in military spending in the region. According to SIPRI, defense expenditures in Asia and Oceania in 2017 were up 3.6% over 2016 and 59% higher than a decade earlier. So there is plenty of money available for new weaponry.

Boosting the US and China

Two of the biggest beneficiaries of this rise in Asian arms imports are the United States and China. According to SIPRI data, the US captured 34% of the global arms market for the period 2013-2017, easily beating Russia, the world’s second-largest arms exporter (which took only a 22% share). US arms transfers in 2017 were the highest in nearly 20 years. Moreover, US exports of arms grew by one-quarter between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, further widening the gap between it and all other arms exporters.

US arms transfers in 2017 were the highest in nearly 20 years. Moreover, US exports of arms grew by one-quarter between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, further widening the gap between it and all other arms exporters

Asia accounted for one-third of all US arms exports during the period 2013-2017. Its biggest customers in the region were Australia and Taiwan. While Russia still leads the United States in overall arms sales to Asia (accounting for 34% of all transfers to the region), the US has stolen business from Russia’s traditional customers. In India, for example, which accounted for 35% of all Russian arms exports during 2013-2017, the United States has become New Delhi’s second-largest weapons supplier. In fact, between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, Indian arms purchases from the US increased by 557%! Indonesia, which bought fighter jets from Moscow, is also diversifying its arms suppliers, to the benefit of Washington.

China is also benefiting from the uptick in Asian arms transfers. China’s exports of major arms grew by 38% between 2008-2012 and 2013-2017, and it captured 5.7% of the global arms market during the latter period (although this was only good enough for fifth place, behind the US, Russia, France, and Germany).

Most of Beijing’s biggest weapons buyers are in Asia, and during the period 2013-2017, the region accounted for 72 percent of all Chinese arms transfers. The two biggest buyers were Pakistan and Bangladesh, which together bought over half of all Chinese arms exports. Pakistan, in fact, now buys around 70% of its arms from China.

Beijing has chalked up some impressive overseas sales, including deals to export eight Yuan-class submarines to Pakistan and three to Thailand. China has also sold tanks to Myanmar and antiship cruise missiles to Indonesia, as well as armed drones to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, and Egypt.

Moreover, China is starting to scale back its imports of arms, as its domestic defense industries continue to improve and thereby develop and produce globally competitive military systems. This is bad news, in the long run, for Russia, which presently accounts for the bulk of all Chinese arms purchases.

What will the next five years hold?

Of course, sales are always about the future, not the past. For the Asian arms market, however, the next five years will likely resemble the past five. Regional tensions in the Indian subcontinent, in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait, and particularly in and around the Korean Peninsula will continue to drive increases in defense spending, which will, in turn, continue to drive new arms acquisitions.

Asia, therefore, will continue to crave the newest and most advanced armaments of all types. This makes it a “must-have” market for the world’s leading – and aspiring – arms exporters. That, in turn, requires the world’s arms manufacturers – many of whom depend heavily upon overseas sales for their survival – to continue to come up with products that will meet the increasingly stringent demands of Asian customers.

One thing is for certain: Asia is not going away as a key arms market anytime soon.

This article was published by Asia Times on the 29th of June 2018. 

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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