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Asia up in arms

Thanks to rapid economic growth across the region, Asia’s military spending will surpass that of Europe for the first time ever in 2012. According to a survey published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Southeast Asian countries together increased defence spending by 13.5 percent, to US$24.5 billion, in 2011. While NATO spending contracts, the Asian figure is projected to rise to US$40 billion by 2016 with China, Japan, India, South Korea and Australia contributing 80 percent.

From border disputes to maritime territorial claims, analysts predict the escalating military expenditures could lead to tense relations in Asia. "What we see in Asia is just about every kind of strategic challenge – from 19th century style territorial disputes to economic rivalry and potential new nuclear weapons states... We need to manage that," John Chipman, IISS director-general tells Reuters.

Though diplomatic efforts will become increasingly important to keep the peace, for now the arms race continues. China’s military spending has doubled in five years to US$89 billion in 2011. Coming in a not-so-close second, India announced a 17 percent increase in 2012, bringing spending to about US$40 billion. Similarly, Indonesia, Vietnam and India, even seemingly docile Australia and urbane Singapore, have been building up their air and naval forces.

According to a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Singapore is the fifth-largest arms importer in the world, spending nearly 25 percent, or US$9.7 billion on defence this year. “Almost every country in Southeast Asia has embarked on a similar build-up, making it one of the fastest-growing regions for defence spending in the world,” writes the Economist.

The US remains an outlier with a hefty US$730 billion budget, but the Institute expects that number to fall as the country withdraws its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington’s attention is already shifting toward Southeast Asia, with recent efforts to station military in Australia and add naval muscle in Singapore.

Despite employing nearly double the personnel of the US, the IISS projects that it would take 20 years for China to surpass Washington’s spending. "China's technological advances are more modest than some alarmist hypotheses of its military development have suggested", Chipman tells the Guardian. "They represent nascent rather than actual capability. China, for example, does not yet have the capability to operate fixed-wing aircraft from a carrier." – Kate Springer