Asia's military spending will exceed Europe's for the first time ever this year, according to a study released Wednesday by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "While the West reduces its spending on defence, Asia is becoming increasingly militarised, as a result of rapid economic growth and strategic uncertainty," it said in a press release.
The main factor is the increase in China's military spending, which takes up 30 percent of the total in Asia. China's military expenditure in 2011 was 2.5 times bigger than the figure in 2001 and has been doubling every five years.
Due to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, "Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are all investing in improving air and naval capacities, as are India, Japan and South Korea," the IIS said.
It added, "China's leadership transition is expected to begin this year and, during leadership transitions, sensitive issues that impinge on questions of national sovereignty may be subject to particular attention. Naval competition in the South China Sea will likely continue and interested states will still pursue naval procurements."
Reuters cited IISS director-general John Chipman as saying, "There's no doubt we are seeing a major shift. What we see in Asia is just about every kind of strategic challenge -- from 19th century-style territorial disputes to economic rivalry and potential new nuclear weapons states ... We need to manage that."
However, the IISS sets no great store by Chinese military technology. "China's technological advances are more modest than some alarmist hypotheses of its military development have suggested," it said. "They represent nascent rather than actual capability. China, for example, does not yet have the capability to operate fixed-wing aircraft from a carrier. However, China's development of anti-satellite capacities, anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and cyber-warfare capabilities preoccupies foreign defence planners as much as its drive to boost major platform capability."
It added Beijing's "growing suite of modern platforms reinforces the gradual change in the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. That said, the strategic priorities of the People's Liberation Army are gradually widening from the defence of China's borders to force projection within East Asia and further afield, in order to secure sea lanes of communication."
But the fact that Asia is spending more than Europe does not necessarily mean that its military prowess is greater as well, the IISS wrote. "The U.S. and other Western nations will look to maintain a qualitative and quantitative edge over states such as China through continued investment in research and development, as well as an emphasis on the quality and reliability of equipment, leadership and training."