While arms exports as a whole declined over the last five years, the United States’ share of the arms trade increased, even though it was already the world’s top weapons dealer. Meanwhile, China’s and Russia’s weapons exports have declined, driven in part by US programs such as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
According to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), purchases of US military equipment by US allies in East and South Asia rose tremendously over the last five years, driven by a growing perception that China is a threat.
The report on the global arms trade in 2020 highlights that Asia and Oceania was the largest region for important arms, accounting for 42% of global arms transfers between 2016 and 2020. Leading the pack were US allies India, Australia and South Korea, as well as China and Pakistan.
Japan’s arms imports increased by 124% in that five-year period as compared to the previous five-year period, topping out at 2,951 arms transfers, but driven especially by a huge $23 billion purchase of 105 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters last year. In January, the Pentagon further noted it has more than $20 billion in active weapons sales with Japan under the Foreign Military Sales program. Not all active sales would appear in SIPRI’s report, since many contracts take years to complete.
South Korea got 3,493 weapons transfers from the US between 2016 and 2020, but also important significantly from Germany during that time, with 1,847 arms transfers. The State Department further notes that the US has more than $30 billion in active government-to-government sales with South Korea, including a slew of advanced aircraft such as the F-35, of which Seoul agreed to buy at least 40 in 2014, prior to SIPRI’s reporting period.
Australia bought some 4,880 weapons transfers from the US in that period, more than two-thirds of all its weapons procurements. According to the US State Department, roughly 60% of Canberra’s 10-year, $145 billion modernization and acquisition budget is sourced from the US, and the US has $25 billion in active sales cases with Australia via the FMS program.
US Declares China a Threat
Siemon T. Wezeman, Senior Researcher at SIPRI, said in the report that “for many states in Asia and Oceania, a growing perception of China as a threat is the main driver for arms imports. More large imports are planned, and several states in the region are also aiming to produce their own major arms.”
In late 2017 and early 2018, the White House and Pentagon laid out a new strategic framework for “great power competition” with Russia and China, although Washington had already begun a “pivot toward Asia” years earlier when Barack Obama was still president.
Since then, the US has increasingly projected that a struggle against China’s rise to global superpower will be protracted and multi-faceted, extending not just to military and economic competition, but also the diplomatic and social spheres. One report in November 2020 laid out plans for isolating China from partners and potential partners internationally while simultaneously attempting to undermine Chinese domestic support for the Communist Party of China as well as inculcate in the US population support for such a struggle.
In the SIPRI report, Taiwan’s imports are less than during the previous five-year period. However, Taipei-based military expert Chi Le-yi told the South China Morning Post that the report did not include the slew of weapons sales to Taiwan made late in the Trump administration, because many have not yet been delivered.
“The weapons sold to Taiwan will be delivered in future years, so they’re not counted in the SIPRI report,” Chi said. “The ongoing tension in the region is good timing for the US to sell weapons.”
Some of those weapons are a $280 million sale of communications equipment; a $600 million sale of MQ-9 Reaper drones; a $2.37 billion sale of mobile Harpoon anti-ship missile systems; and $1 billion in long-range cruise missiles.
Only a handful of nations recognize Taiwan’s claim to be the legitimate Chinese government instead of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing, which won the civil war in 1949 but was never able to invade Taiwan and snuff out the old Republican government. Accordingly, Taipei only buys weapons from the United States, which has continued to funnel weapons to the autonomous island via backdoor deals even though the US formally recognizes the PRC as the legitimate Chinese government.
The report also notes that India’s weapons imports also fell by one-third between 2016 and 2020, but attributes this to a slow procurement process and notes that New Delhi’s purchases accelerated in 2020 amid the ongoing border disputes with China. Together with Australia, Japan and the US, the four nations have formed the “Quad,” a somewhat informal anti-China bloc that held its first summit with all four heads of state last week.
US Still Chief Arms Dealer
Across the board, the US remains the world’s largest weapons exporter, but between 2016 and 2020 it actually increased its share of the market from 32% to 37% of all sales, with half of that going just to the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia imported more weapons than any other nation from 2016 to 2020, during which it was fighting a destructive war in Yemen against Houthi forces who in 2015 forced Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi – a Saudi ally – from power. Riyadh was also the US’ largest customer, buying 24% of all US weapons exports, or 12,653 separate weapons transfers.
After US President Joe Biden took office earlier this year, he claimed to be ending support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but the State Department later clarified that while future arms sales to the kingdom would be subjected to greater scrutiny, there would be no blanket ban on such sales.