In recent months, the wars of words between China and Japan over disputed islands in the South China Sea have rattled many Asian nations, which would prefer that their giant neighbors focus on peaceful trade. But the verbal battles have obscured another, more disturbing regional trend: Asian countries are gearing up for the possibility of a real fight. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the amount spent on weapons purchases in Southeast Asia nearly doubled between 2005 and 2009, the most recent figures available. The weapons-buying spree will go on—these increases are expected to continue in 2010 and 2011, despite the global economic downturn. Indeed, for many Western and Russian arms manufacturers, Asia has become the promised land.
Asia's nations are spending on weapons in part because older arms are becoming obsolete, and many countries did not replace them during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But there is another, far more disturbing reason for the arms race: some of the region's historically most unstable and aggressive states are remilitarizing, handing their armed forces unprecedented amounts of power. And as countries like Pakistan, China, and North Korea remilitarize, the region's democratic states feel forced to do the same.
China has recently been increasing its defense budget by more than 10 percent in most years, and building a real blue-water Navy. “The pace and scope of China's military modernization have increased,” notes the Pentagon's most recent report on the Chinese military. This buildup will “increase China's options for using military force to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor.”