A Looming Arms Race in East Asia?

The answer might surprise you.

The annual SIPRI and IISS reports about military spending have recently been published, and it appears there is an emerging consensus that East Asian countries are engaged in a massive arms buildup and an increasingly volatile arms race, with war increasingly likely. For example, last year, Reuters announced that Asian defense spending had exceeded Europe’s for the first time in modern history. While true, the real cause was that European spending had declined more quickly than East Asian spending, although that headline would not have been nearly as provocative. The Financial Times recently claimed that Asian defense spending was a worrisome $332 billion—but without defining which countries were included, whether comparisons to earlier years were adjusted for inflation, and lacking any comparison to other regions.

However, these are headlines, designed to shock and awe. A closer inspection reveals that East Asian regional military expenditures are at a twenty-five year low when measured as a proportion of GDP, and are almost half of what countries spent during the Cold War. The major East Asian countries have increased their spending about 50 percent less on average than Latin American countries since 2002. The country most actively increasing its military spending is China.

Accurately measuring what countries are doing, in addition to what they are saying, will provide a clearer understanding of regional threat perceptions and help guide U.S. policy. Measuring defense expenditures and capabilities in the major East Asian countries is one direct way to assess whether or not the region has heightened threat perceptions. If expenditures are actually high, then the conventional narrative about an increasingly dangerous region is probably accurate. If military expenditures are low, then the U.S. rebalance to Asia that emphasizes new ways to create security that are not focused on the military and also burden-sharing with allies and partners is in sync with regional attitudes and critical to continued stability.

This restraint does not include China. Although China has claimed that it wishes to engage in a “peaceful rise,” China has also rapidly modernized its armed forces and become increasingly assertive. The army has been streamlined even while training and equipment have been improved. The air force has better weaponry than ever before. Most notable has been China’s quest for a blue-water navy. The PLA Navy has increased the quality of its submarines, sought improved weaponry and missile capabilities, and has been slowly creating power-projection capabilities. This improved military capability has been accompanied by more powerful and assertive declarations of Chinese sovereignty over disputed islands and more direct challenges to the Cold War status quo that existed in East Asia. The real question is not whether China is rapidly increasing its military spending, but whether other East Asian countries are responding in kind.

East Asian Defense Spending Looks Like Latin America

A successful and sustainable American grand strategy for East Asia depends critically on an accurate understanding of how East Asian states view themselves and China. Defense expenditures are perhaps the most direct indicator of a nation’s threat perceptions, and macrolevel data appears to present a puzzle of declining—or at most, marginally increasing—East Asian military expenditures.

The standard way in which security scholars measure a country’s militarization is to measure the defense effort—i.e., the ratio of defense expenditures to GDP. Data on the East Asian defense effort reveals that East Asian military expenditures have declined fairly significantly over the past quarter century. The eleven major East Asian countries (including China) devoted an average of 3.35 percent of their economies to military expenditures in 1988, but by 2013 that average was 1.86 percent of GDP. Furthermore, the gap between East Asian and Latin American spending has narrowed considerably. In 2013, Latin American countries devoted an average of 1.72 percent of their economies to the military.

Even measured in absolute terms, Japanese defense expenditures rose only 27 percent over twenty-five years when adjusted for inflation, and Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s proposed increases will total only 5 percent by 2018. Over a twenty-five year period (1988-2012), absolute spending in East Asia increased by an average of 148 percent, but Latin American countries averaged much greater increases of 269 percent. Again, the exception is China: since 1988, Chinese military spending has increased 834 percent in real terms.

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