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Indo-Pacific's military equipment buying spree risks arms race

Region's economic growth propels weapons export volume to Cold War levels

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have expressed interest in purchasing F-35 stealth jets. (Source photo by Reuters)

TOKYO -- Global arms exports are on the rise. From the Middle East to Southeast Asia, emerging economies are building up their arsenals. This time, unlike during the Cold War, weapons export countries are marketing their products with more of a business mindset than a political one, but if these weapons are implemented, they could trigger an arms race and exacerbate regional tensions.

A number of countries in the Middle East have expressed their desire to procure F-35 stealth jets -- a fifth-generation jet that is difficult to detect on radars. While Japan, Israel and other U.S. allies already use the F-35, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have also expressed interest in the jets, which are produced in the U.S. At a press conference in August, U.S. President Donald Trump said, "They have the money and they would like to order quite a few F-35s."

Arms imports are increasing in the Middle East. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Qatar's arms imports in the 2010s were 15.6 times higher than in the 2000s, while Saudi Arabia's imports increased 6.6 times in the same period.

In Southeast Asia, where tensions are rising in the South China Sea, Vietnam's imports have increased 6.7 times and Indonesia's 2.5 times over the same period. The economic growth of Indo-Pacific nations is driving the demand for arms.

Nikkei analyzed the military expenditure of 68 countries and regions with spending of more than $1 billion in 2018. When comparing the data with 2009, there was a clear correlation between the nations' economic growth and increase in money spent on arms.

Some countries increased their defense spending more steeply than their economic growth, such as Indonesia, where defense spending in 2018 was 2.5 times that of 2009, while the nominal gross domestic product grew 81% in the same period.

The volume of arms exports is approaching Cold War levels, according to the database of SIPRI, but the picture has changed dramatically since it ended in 1991. During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union exported most of their arms to their allies, such as the members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

In the last two decades, Saudi Arabia has become the largest customer for U.S. arms, and the Middle East is becoming an important market for the U.S. defense industry. In the past, the U.S. refrained from selling advanced weapons to Arab countries to maintain the military superiority of Israel.

Nowadays, markets in the Indo-Pacific region are increasing their share of global arms consumption. This can largely be explained by the fact that the region is home to many allies of the U.S., including Australia, South Korea and Japan. Heigo Sato, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo, explained: "The U.S. thinks that rather than deploying their own troops, they should export arms and enhance their allies' military capabilities."

Although exports from the former Soviet Union dropped in the late 1990s, Russia is now on the offensive again. The administration of President Vladimir Putin is making a dent in arms-hungry markets such as in Asia and North Africa.

Yu Koizumi, a project assistant professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on Russia's military policy, said: "The Russians sold weapons as a package with Russian energy and infrastructure. Another advantage of Russian-made weapons is [their proven] use in actual battlefields," he said. The U.S. and Russia, the world's two major arms exporters, have also secured domestic jobs with their export industries.

Other countries have also begun to increase exports. The share of global arms exports from the U.S., countries of the former Soviet Union, and Russia was 70% in the 1970s, but the figure fell to 57% in the latter half of the 2010s. For example, South Korea signed a contract with Indonesia in April to build three submarines. Israel is also exporting arms to India and other countries in the region.

China has not seen a marked increase in its exports, while its imports are decreasing. Beijing is currently prioritizing the modernization of the People's Liberation Army. But Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at Japan's Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said, "China will start to export older generation models of armaments massively at a low-price in the near future."

Japan eased its ban on arms exports in 2014, paving the way for the sale of made-in-Japan weapons. During a visit to Vietnam in October, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga reached an agreement on the export of defense equipment from Japan to Vietnam.

In the six years since 2014, however, Japan has sealed only one contract; Mitsubishi Electric in August signed a deal to supply warning and control radar systems to the Philippines.

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