Across the Indo-Pacific, countries big and small are building up their military capacity through domestic production and imports.
The most recent signal of the military build-up in the Asia-Pacific (also known as Indo-Pacific) region is the decision by India to enhance its stock of ammunition and weapons (War Wastage Reserves) for a period of 15 days from its current 10-day limit. This will, undoubtedly, involve significant expenditure for acquiring the stocks locally and through imports, but this is a signal of the government’s perception of the strategic environment that the country confronts in the coming period. Across the region, countries big and small are building up their military capacity through domestic production and imports.
This build-up is not new. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has revealed that after a steady decline in the arms trade between 1980-84 to 2000-2004, there has been a globally rising trend principally affecting the Indo-Pacific region. For the purposes of this discussion, “Indo-Pacific,” as per the Indian definition, ranges from East Africa to the western shores of the US.
While a historically high arms trade has been a feature of the Middle East, it has in recent decades, been linked with the rise of China. Writing in 2015, Richard A Bitzinger noted that in almost every year for almost two decades since 1997, China had increased its defence budgets in double-digit percentages. In 2008, China had become the number two defence spender in the world, way ahead of countries like India. This was all the more striking since in 1997, official Chinese military expenditures were of the order of some US$ 10 billion per annum, at par with Taiwan and significantly less than South Korea and Japan, but by 2012, they had exceeded US$ 100 billion.
The situation has only intensified in recent years. Even as Indian procurements have slowed because of budget constraints, those in the Middle East and the western Pacific have grown. A Nikkei analysis of 68 countries has revealed that there was a clear correlation between the nation’s economic growth and increase in money spent on arms in the period between 2009-2018. But there were countries like Indonesia where the defence spending in 2018 was 2.5 times that of 2009, while the nominal gross domestic product grew only 81 percent in that period.
Data related to 2019 released by SIPRI in early December 2020 noted that sales of arms and military services by the sector’s 25 largest companies had totalled US$ 361 billion in 2019, a rise of 8.5 percent over 2018. All of the top five companies in the list are from the US, accounting for US$ 166 billion of the sales. But Russia has been a significant supplier of fighters to Indonesia and an array of systems to Vietnam as well as India. The American Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) is likely to impact on this. The US competition with China is seeing it emerging as an increasingly bigger player as an arms supplier to Southeast Asia. In recent years, we have seen the US make an effort to reach out to countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where the Chinese are entrenched as the main suppliers of weapons.
Among the more alarming developments, and one that has implications for the Indo-Pacific, has been the trend towards new types of weapons systems, such as hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles. China has been among the first nations to field such weapons and now others like the US, Russia, India and Australia are scrambling to catch up. As it is, competition between the US and China is intensifying with the US also now determined to deploy long-range ground launch cruise missiles in the region to counter China’s overwhelming advantage in land-based cruise and ballistic missiles.
2020 saw significant acquisitions by many Indo-Pacific countries. While countries like the US, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia fielded an array of home-produced weapons and systems, there were significant imports by others. India remained a major importer and continued its acquisition of the US and Korean-made howitzers, Israeli anti-tank guided missiles, French Rafale fighters, and a French-designed submarine. But it made a significant move by leasing a Kilo-class submarine to Myanmar in November 2020. A slew of regional countries like Australia, Japan, and South Korea inducted the US-made F-35 A Lightening II joint strike fighters. Pakistan deployed its Chinese designed JF-17 fighters.
What 2021 will unfold is not easy to forecast, given the earth-shaking events of 2020.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...Read More +