Asian arms race a concern amid global strife

Published : 24 Oct 2023 09:17 PM
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On sheer optics, albeit in a different part of the world, South Korea’s biennial defense expo could not have come at a worse time. The cauldron of a Russia-Ukraine conflict has crossed the 600-day mark and a new battle enraged the Middle East and beyond.

Yet, the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition, known as ADEX, which ran from last Tuesday until Sunday, was the country’s largest-ever defense exhibition and sought to “turbocharge” its arms sales. If a cherry on the cake was ever needed, a US nuclear-capable bomber made a “rare appearance.”

Weeks into the buildup, the exhibition organizers proudly displayed sponsor “sold-out” status and closed its online application booking system for space as early as April. As is an established tradition with arms fairs, there was also a headline-grabbing moment in the form of a $13.7 billion Poland-South Korea deal to supply Warsaw with 48 new light combat aircraft. There was no dearth of pomp and show, too, as members of South Korea’s Black Eagle aerobatics team performed a spectacular display.

With or without conflicts keeping the Middle East and Europe on edge, Seoul’s goal to become the fourth-biggest weapons exporter will be realized sooner rather than later. As a knock-on impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the demand for military equipment and ammunition has surged in Europe.

More countries feel vulnerable to local and regional conflicts and are eager to stockpile weapons

Taking the bull by the horns, more than 450 senior defense officials from 54 countries descended on the Seoul ADEX to pick the weapons of their choice. “This is an opportunity for Korea’s defense industry to draw international attention and take a giant leap forward,” said Lee Jong-ho, chief of the ADEX organizing office.

The rush to build a weapons arsenal is not new to humankind, not in the modern era. Empirical data suggests that more countries feel vulnerable to local and regional conflicts, besides geostrategic factors, and are eager to stockpile weapons for their day of reckoning.Political stability deteriorated in 59 countries over the past year, compared to just 22 where the indicator improved. However, data does not always paint the right picture and neither does it speak the language of wisdom. Another study suggests the number of battle deaths had been rising worldwide even before the Ukraine conflict, with the total number of conflict-related deaths increasing by 45 percent between 2020 and 2021.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that the financial value of the global arms trade for 2020 was about $112 billion. It also concedes that the accurate figure is likely to be higher. A random search of how much is needed to curb hunger and fight climate change tells a tale of misplaced priorities.

One estimate puts the undernourished population in Asia at 381 million. A 2015 UN Food and Agriculture Organization report estimated that $267 billion per year was needed until 2030 to end hunger globally.

Yet, humankind’s sheer inability to end conflicts fuels the need to arm constantly.

Asia’s vast size and significant regional tensions mean many countries maintain large standing armies

According to the Global Peace Index, the worldwide economic impact of violence was $17.5 trillion in purchasing power parity terms in 2022, equivalent to 12.9 percent of global gross domestic product or $2,200 per person.

Asia is becoming a critical ground in the world’s further weaponization, as the absolute level of military expenditure in the continent has increased since 2008. The countries with the most significant increase in total outlays include China ($180 billion) and India ($40 billion).

North Korea remains a significant factor in the Asian arms race. With its nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches, it routinely prompts responses from South Korea, Japan and the US. Russia remains a top global arms producer and exporter. While primarily associated with Europe, its Asian part is essential to its strategic calculus.

Some Asian nations are also significant arms producers and exporters. China has become one of the world’s top arms exporters, with many clients in Asia and Africa, even as disputes like the South China Sea conflict involve multiple Asian countries and have led to an arms buildup in the region. The countries involved include China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Asia’s vast size and significant regional tensions mean many countries maintain large standing armies. China and India, for instance, have two of the largest in the world.

Conflict zones in Asia have an oversupply of light weapons due to insurgencies or internal conflicts. Asia and the world’s tryst with ammunition will not end anytime soon. Even if production ceased today, vast weapons stockpiles worldwide would continue to sustain conflicts for a significant time.

Countries across Asia and the Pacific are bolstering their defense budgets, some spooked by China’s military buildup, others by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or doubts about receding US footprint in the region. The current arms race is the most significant in Asia since the Second World War, and it will only help if a pause button is pressed and a new rationale is developed to regulate and curb it.

Ehtesham Shahid is an Indian editor and researcher based in the UAE. X: @e2sham

Source: Arab News