A big rise in defence spending by China's neighbours could easily be interpreted as an arms race to counter Beijing's military expansion. Increased tension over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas and along the frontier with India seemingly support such thinking. Add in the United States' renewed interest in Asia and the impression could readily be given of a region hurtling towards conflict, perhaps even war. The reality is anything but; while in some countries there are doubts and suspicions, what is taking place is modernisation, not sabre-rattling in readiness for hostilities.
Asian governments are pragmatic, after all. They know that the economic advances of recent decades will be eroded or even lost should disputes lead to military conflict. But they also know the value of security and border protection, so are taking advantage of the good economic times to update equipment and surveillance systems. It is a natural symptom of success.
The numbers appear impressive: In its recently released annual report on the world's militaries, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies said Asia's defence spending last year outstripped that of Europe for the first time, amounting to US$287.4 billion. That was still far less than half of US spending, which accounted for 45.3 per cent of the global total. China, in second place, had growth over the period in real terms of 8.3 per cent, compared to the Asian average of 4.94 per cent. But the amounts are more about circumstances than rivalry. As the report pointed out, the figures reflect Asia's rise and Europe's economic decline.
That is not to say that the new aircraft and vessels being acquired threaten stability. The threats and distrust that exist are long-standing, North Korea's arms proliferation being the most apparent. What has changed is that governments now have the means to modernise their ageing defences.
Perhaps a more realistic way of looking at Asia's spending would be as a percentage of GDP. In those terms, data stretching back to 1988 from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute indicates the region is more interested in social and economic development than defence. Using this gauge, spending by the six biggest countries in Southeast Asia has dropped from 3.5 per cent of GDP 25 years ago to less than 2 per cent. China's is 2 per cent, next to 4.4 per cent for the US. It is a matter for consideration when weighing military purchases.