Asia the next big arms economy?

  • Overview of the global military contributors
  • Analysis of the import-export scenario of the global arms market
  • Outlook of Asia Pacific in the future of the arms market


Global military expenditure contribution rose to 2.6 percent of the global gross domestic product to $1,822 billion as of 2018, as per data by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The biggest contributor to these were United States, China, Saudi Arabia, India and France, which in total accounted for about 60 percent of the global military spending. Military spending by the United States increased for the first time since 2010. While countries across the world are reducing their spending on military, Asian countries are following a reverse trend, with China leading the pact (military spending increased for the 24th consecutive year). Since the past two decades weapons trade has been on the rise and shows no signs of slowing down in the near future, as per data release by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Of these increases of flow of arms to Asia and Oceania the maximum has been to China, India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE). The region in total represented approximately 40% of the global arms imports in the past 5 years. This region is home to eight of the top ten arms importers and also home to two of the top ten arms exporters in the period between 2014 and 2018.

Asia-Pacific is home to almost all of the major arms importing countries, with these countries registering huge surge in imports between 2009-2013 and further during 2014-2018 period. Looking into the top two countries, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both recorded higher imports by 192 percent and 206 percent, respectively in the period between 2009-2013 and 2014-2018. Between 2014-2018 US accounted for majority of Saudi Arabia’s arm imports registering at 68 percent and UK at second with 16 percent. Major deliveries to Saudi Arabia during this period include 78 combat aircrafts, 72 combat helicopters, 328 tanks and about 4,000 armored vehicles. As for Egypt, in the period during 2009-2013, the country majorly imported their arms from the US. However, between 2013 and 2015, the US had frozen military aid to the Egyptians and halted deliveries of arms. As a result, Egypt signed a major arm deals with France, and since then France accounted for 37 percent of Egypt’s arms imports and overtook the US to become its main importer from the period between 2014-2018. The conflicts and tensions in the gulf regions are the main contributor for the growth in demand for arms in the countries of the region.

India, the second largest arms importer globally, accounted for approximately 9.5 percent of the global total in the period between 2014-18. However, India’s imports have decreased by about 24 percent in the period between 2009-13 to 2014-18. This is due to delay from Russia towards the deliveries of combat aircrafts and submarines from France, under license from foreign suppliers. Russia continued to be the major exporter for India’s arm imports between 2014-18, contributing approximately 58 percent of India’s arms import as compared to 76% in the period between 2009-13. The imports from Russia to India is further expected to increase in the next five years, since India has signed several deals, and more are in pipeline between the two nations. The growing strategic partnership between the US and India made way for US supplying India with advanced military equipment, thereby allowing the US to take the third place for India’s arms imports accounting for approximately 12% of the total imports. Israel is also a major importer for India standing at second place accounting for 15% of the country’s arms imports. Vietnam, though not part of the top 10 importers globally, has seen its arms imports increase significantly over the last decade. Vietnam increased its arms depositary by almost 795 percent over the last decade and has since moved from around 40th position in terms of arms buyers to the global top 15 in recent years. The country is spending heavily, particularly on its naval weaponry – in response to China’s moves in the South China Sea. Russia delivered majority of the Vietnam’s imports, accounting for 78 percent of the imports in between 2013-2017.

On the exports front, the US has been the top exporter of arms in the world and continued to extend its lead in the export of arms in the international market, accounting for approximately 36 percent of the total global exports in the period between 2014-18, from 30 percent in the period between 2009-2013. In the period between 2014-2018 US arms exports value was higher by 57 percent as compared to Russia – the second largest arm exporter globally. Middle East accounted for the maximum share of US arms exports, with Saudi Arabia being the largest recipient in 2014-2018 period, accounting for 22 percent of the US arms exports, followed by Asia Pacific In efforts to offset China’s dominance and influence in the Asia Pacific region, US has been pushing for strengthening its ties with India, where it has significantly increased its arms exports. The US has also increased its exports to Vietnam in recent years. In a first of its kind, US transferred one large patrol ship to Vietnam in 2017. While the exports of arms and weapons have decreased by 17 percent in Russia between 2009-2013 and 2014-2018, Russia is still one of the prominent exporters for the arms trade across Asia. The region accounted for more than 60 percent of Russian arms exports in 2014-2018. The major exports nations for Russia include the likes of India, Vietnam, China and Algeria, accounting for approximately 70 percent of Russia’s overall arm exports over the last five years.

Within the Asia-Pacific, China has been the only country making a significant contribution in arms exports, wherein, China increased its share in the global arms export market by 195 percent between 2004-08 and 2009-13 but increased by only 3 percent between 2009-13 and 2014-18. Between 2014-18 Asia Pacific accounted for 70 percent of China’s arm exports. Pakistan was the major recipient of China’s exports, receiving 37 percent of it in between 2014-2018. The countries to which China delivered arms has also grown in number in between 2009-13 and 2014-18 from 41 countries to 53 countries. But of the 53 countries, 39 of the recipients in 2014-18 each accounted for less than 1 percent of the total Chinese arms exports. China’s arm exports have been limited in growth because of the fact that many of the countries, including India, South Korea, Australia and Vietnam (who are also the top arms importers in 2014-18) – do not procure its arms from China because of political reasons.

Another country worth noting for exports in the international arms trade from Asia is South Korea. South Korea is quickly becoming one of the major arms business nations with its arms exports increasing by 94 percent in the period between 2009-2013 and 2014-2018, making it by far one of the largest increases among all other countries worldwide. Also, in between 2014-2018, South Korea exported arms to European states for the first time. For the year 2018, South Korea was the 6th largest exporter of arms in the world, a giant leap for the country.

The growth in the arms and weapon trade, both on the export and import front, in the Asia-Pacific region has been driven mainly by the rise of China as a global superpower, anxiety across the East Asia region over nuclearization in North Korea, conflicts of the territories around the South China Sea and of course the decades old tension between Pakistan and India. These tensions between the nations have been the drivers for major contracts and orders for new weapons in between 2014-2018. “With no regional arms control instruments in place, states in Asia continue to expand their arsenals,” said senior researcher with SIPRI Dr. Siemon Wezeman. This statement can further be justified by the fact that till December 2017 only six out of 53 countries in the Asia-Pacific region had ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a multilateral treaty to regulate the international trade in conventional arms. The main reason for this reluctance to ratify the ATT is lack of mutual trust among the nations when it comes to the security sensitive concerns and issues. For the arms market of Asia, experts say that the coming years will likely resemble the past trends of growth because of the regional tensions in the Indian subcontinent, to conflicts in the South China Sea and the Gulf tensions. And for these uncertainties in the region, the countries will most likely continue arms purchases and for which Asia will probably continue to be a major consumer for the world’s leading arms manufacturers.

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