Project on Defense Alternatives

Asia Pacific Tilts to West:
Limit Offensive Weaponry, Boost Arms Control

Project on Defense Alternatives
Carl Conetta and Charles Knight
Defense News op-ed
March 31-April 6, 1997

What is the character of the post-Cold War military challenges in the Asia-Pacific region? Although a useful answer to that question is necessarily complex, examining the pattern of military expenditures in the region is a helpful first step.

Between 1986 when Cold War spending in the West peaked, and 1994, the year for which the latest full set of data is available, there were aggregate increases in military spending in East Asia and Oceania which together comprise the Asia-Pacific region. East Asian military budgets have increased by 14%, or more than $18 billion dollars, in absolute terms. The states of Oceania add another $1.6 billion to the total.

The mainstays of this regional increase are several nations closely aligned with the West -- Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Together, yhese nations show an increase in annual spending during the period of $18.8 billion -- more than 95% of the overall regional increase.

According to figures from the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the growth in the Chinese budget accounts for only 4 percent of the Asia-Pacific regional increase. Indeed, the Chinese share of regional spending declined during the period from 39 to 34 percent.

North Korea, another nation in the region of special concern to the West, shows a 22 percent decline in spending during the period. In 1986 it spent 81 percent as much as South Korea on defense; today it spends 42 percent as much.

Vietnam's military budget has virtually collapsed, declining 85 percent from its 1986 level of $3.1 billion. Thus, behind the trend of increased spending in the Asia-Pacific region, which has attracted much attention, is a more significant development: the military spending ratio between those states allied with the West and those the West considers potential threats has shifted decisively in favor of the West and its allies.

In 1986 China, North Korea, and Vietnam together spent the equivalent of approximately $62 billion on defense; in 1994 they spent $58.7 billion. In 1986 the pro-Western group (comprising Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand) spent $67.5 billion. In 1994 they spent $89.5 billion. Thus the pro-Western group, which spent 8.5 percent more than the so-called threat group in 1986, spent 52 percent more than these states in 1994.

The trends in regional military spending point to several important considerations for American security policy. First, China is not building up military force faster than nor surging ahead of other states in the region. Second, North Korea has lost any comparative advantage it might once have had on the Korean peninsula. And third, the long time US goal of burden sharing with allies is being realized.

Current trends suggest that neither Chinese military hegemony nor North Korean irredentism pose the greatest challenge to regional stability. Instead the most critical issues for US concern may be incipient sub-regional arms races and rivalries among Western allies.

With the dissipation of the bloc structure of the Cold War, many nations in the region are reverting to historic concerns about Japan, for instance. Sub- regional contests among Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, and Singapore are also possible.

The US can use its considerable political influence and leading market position in the region to guide the composition of the future military investments among allies and friends. U.S. policy should be to discourage arms races and the acquisition of long-range offensive capabilities, and to encourage defensive postures and respect for regional and subregional balance.

Advancing such a set of policies requires consistent promotion of defensive doctrines, regional arms control, and confidence building measures. This, together with progress toward adoption of substantive security agendas in the ASEAN Regional Forum, will do much more for security stability than supporting regional military buildups through arms sales.

Conetta, Carl and Charles Knight, "Asia Pacific Tilts to West: Limit Offensive Weaponry, Boost Arms Control." Defense News, March 31-April 6, 1997.

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