“There is a small frenzy to arm oneself in the Indo-Pacific region”, underlines John Delury, professor at the university Yonsei (South Korea). “It feels like everyone is getting into it.” This week, the various missile tests and arms purchases have highlighted the intensification of the arms race in this part of the globe. Within 24 hours, North Korea fired two ship-borne ballistic missiles, South Korea its first ballistic missile from a submarine and, for its part, Australia announced the purchase of American submarines nuclear-powered and state-of-the-art cruise missiles. This exceptional activity reflects the region’s desire to spend lavishly to acquire the latest and best technologies in the field of armaments, according to experts.
Last year, the Asia-Pacific region alone spent more than half a billion US dollars on defense, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “We really see an upward trend for 20 years,” explained Lucie Beraud-Sudreau, of this Institute. “Asia is really the region where this trend is most noticeable.” Lucie Beraud-Sudreau underlines the concordance between rapid economic growth — which brings more money into the government’s coffers — and a change in the “perception of threats” weighing on the region.
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252 billion spent by China on defense
China alone represents about half of this amount, with an annual defense budget that has been constantly increasing for 26 years, which has made it possible to make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a modern military force. Beijing now devotes an estimated $252 billion per year to its defense, a budget up 76% since 2011, which allows it to project its forces throughout the region and thus compete directly with the United States. . Defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and the rest of the region is also growing at a rapid pace.
Michael Shoebridge, a former head of Australian defense intelligence, now a member of the Australian Institute of Political Strategy, believes that these expenditures are made in reaction to China. “The competition in military matters is between China and the other partner countries who want to dissuade Beijing from using force,” he said. “This reaction is only growing, especially since Xi (Jinping) is president. He clearly intends to use all the power acquired by China in a rather coercive and aggressive way.”
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Today, nearly 20% of defense spending in the region is devoted to equipment purchases, including maritime assets and long-range deterrents intended to persuade Beijing – or any other adversary – that the cost of an attack would be too high. For Michael Shoebridge, Australia’s historic decision to acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines and Tomahawk cruise missiles illustrates this deterrence theory: “It is intended to increase the cost of a possible military conflict for China and makes it possible to thwart quite effectively the means put in place by the PLA”.
He also believes that South Korea’s spending “is driven as much by China as it is by North Korea.” “There is no explanation for (Seoul’s) decision to build an aircraft carrier over North Korea.” Similarly, “India’s military modernization is clearly driven by China’s growing military power,” says Michael Shoebridge. For its part, China – which likes to describe its relationship with the United States as “rivalry between great powers” – accuses them of fueling the arms race.
According to the Global Times, a Chinese daily with a resolutely nationalist tone, Washington “hysterically polarizes its alliance system”. While fear of China is driving defense spending in the region, the United States seems intent on accelerating the process, actively helping regional allies grow stronger. As China and Japan “moved forward” with their defense programs, John Delury believes that Washington “helped and encouraged” the allies to do the same “under the pretext of deterring China”.
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