Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

Spoiling for a fight

The arms race throughout Asia is in full swing and shows no signs of abating. According to a study from the Stockholm-based International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world's biggest arms importers over the last five years are all in Asia – India, China, Pakistan, South Korea and Singapore. The arms build-up can be attributed to a number of conflicts in Asia, from the hostility between India and Pakistan, and threats from North Korea, to the territorial disputes in the East China Sea.

Beijing's controversial declaration of its air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea is the latest in a series of perceived aggravations that have angered major powers across Asia. The ADIZ includes Japan's Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) and also a submerged rock called Ieodo claimed by South Korea. This hot zone has the potential to destabilise East Asia, and all bordering countries make no secret about their growing arms stockpiles.

China increased military spending to Rmb740.6 billion (US$119 billion) from Rmb669.1 billion, according to the Ministry of Finance. It's the second-largest military budget after the United States. China is upgrading its fleet of fighter jets, ships and missiles but insists it doesn't pose a threat to its neighbours.

Japan, however, fears China has indeed become more hostile and the island nation boosted its defence budget by the most in nearly two decades, calling for US$45.8 billion in spending in the fiscal year starting April 2014, up 2.2 percent from the previous year.

Also countering China's rapid military build-up, India's Finance Minister P Chidambaram said that New Delhi plans to spend up to Rs2.03 trillion (US$37.7 billion) on defence in 2014, up from a revised 1.78 trillion rupees in 2013. He said Rs867.41 billion will be spent to buy defence equipment in the next fiscal year, up from 2013's Rs695.79 billion.

Predictably, India's increased spending has jacked up Pakistan's defence budget by 15 percent, the Express Tribune reports. Pakistan – India's rival – increased its 2013 budget to Rs627 billion (US$6.32 billion). The publication comments, "Pakistan raises its defence spending every year because of its historically uneasy relations with arch-rival India."

Meanwhile, South Korea's budget for the Defense Ministry has been set at W35.8 trillion (US$33 billion) in 2014, up 4.2 percent from 2013, according to the Ministry of Strategy and Finance. Seoul is not to be outdone by the arms buildup in Tokyo and Beijing but, according to a government report, South Korea has also put the defence budget towards strengthening missile and combat capabilities against possible provocations from North Korea.

The simmering conflicts in Asia have also impacted benign countries like Singapore, where the defence budget was projected S$12.3 billion (US$9 billion) for 2013-2014, the largest in Southeast Asia. The country's growing wealth means it can afford to expand its military budget, and as William Choong argues for IISS Voices, "Singapore needs a defence premium – not only to ensure that it would have the military wherewithal to repel an aggressor, but also to enable it to remain free from coercion." – Lorraine Chow