The Asia-Pacific region is now well and truly in an arms race like no other. China alone is said to have quadrupled its military spending since 2000. Indeed, in 2013 Asian countries spent a combined US$322 billion on military budgets compared to US$262 billion in 2010.
Despite global military spending falling in 2013 by 1.9 percent in real terms, Asian expenditures have continued to rise. Indeed, a report from that year by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has argued that while military spending has fallen in the West, it has continued to increase in every other region.
SIPRI noted that expenditure in Asia and Oceania rose by 3.6 percent in 2013, to US$407 billion. Indeed, Asia and Oceania is the only region where spending has increased every year since 1988.
SIPRI claims that the on-going arms race is linked to Asia’s relative decline in US priorities since 2001 due to its being stuck in the Middle Eastern quagmire. This meant that allies like South Korea and Japan have had to step their arms buys up, especially in light of perceived Chinese expansionism.
This is no chimera: Chinese military purchases and expenditures have increased by 170 percent since 2010 alone. This puts it second only to the US, whose USD640 billion splurge in 2013 was still more than the next 10 countries in the world put together and who still accounts for 37 percent of total global arms spending.
Military spending also rose by as much as 5.0 percent in Southeast Asia. The top splurges here were by Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Philippine military spending alone rose by 17 percent in 2013, although from an extremely low base since dfense purchases have been ignored by Manila..
Asian countries, to be sure, are packing a lot of heat now.
China has recently floated its own aircraft carrier, the Liaoning and there are plans for at least two more by 2020. Its fifth-generation Shenyang J-15 jets can fly off these carriers.
Japan—with premier Shinzo Abe planning to re-write its post-WWII pacifist constitution—plans to boost its navy with two Aegis-equipped destroyers, five submarines, 52 amphibious vehicles and 28 F-35 fighter jets.
At the same time, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan are also considering upgrading their aging F-16 fleets with the F-35s. fleet of F-16s and Singapore is in the throes of deciding whether to buy into the F-35 program. The Singapore air combat fleet dwarfs those of its neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, including 24 Boeing F-15SGs, 20 Lockheed Martin F-16Cs and 40 F-16Ds, as well as 28 Northrop F-5S and nine F-5T Tiger Iis for an island 27 miles long.
The fact that Asian countries are now boosting their arsenals is worrying given the geopolitical tensions simmering beneath the veneer of peace and stability in the region.
As was the case 100 years ago in 1914, when the European powers stumbled into a conflict that would take the lives of 16 million people and leave 20 million wounded, overlapping territorial claims and long-standing ethno-nationalist rivalries are ratcheting up tensions, especially on a people-to-people basis.
The focal points of these overlapping claims are the South China Sea, where Beijing has chosen to establish its “nine-dash line” almost to the doorsteps of its North Asian and Southeast Asian neighbors. This of course is above and beyond existing conflicts over the Spratlys and Paracel islets, the Daiyo/Senkaku islands and the Dodko/Takeshima islets.
There have been plenty of individual confrontations over the past few months that could have exploded into full-scale conflicts. The recent spate of raucous demonstrations in Vietnam following China’s ill-advised dispatch of an oil rig to a hotly-disputed part of the South China Sea highlight the passions involved. The demonstrations left two dead, more than 100 injured, and China scrambling to evacuate its 3,000 nationals there.
Elsewhere, Japanese and Chinese jet fighters have come perilously close to dogfights over the Senkaku/Daioyu chain on an almost daily basis. There has been further tension in the South China Sea, with repeated face-offs between China and a far weaker Philippines, who nevertheless has the US Seventh Fleet looming over its shoulder.
Could Asia be headed for another Great War? Could an unexpected event, in combination with historic tensions as well as interlocking alliances bring the whole region and elsewhere into a state of conflict? It’s not as far-fetched as one might think. This of course is not the first—and will not be the last—comparison between WWI and current events in Asia.
Keith Leong is a Kuala Lumpur-based writer.