Security analysts say a new study on regional military spending indicates Asia's major powers, led by China, are getting serious about defense matters.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies
says defense spending in China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Taiwan has doubled in the past decade, reaching $224 billion last year.
The trend contrasts with that of many Western countries, whose defense budgets have declined in recent years. The CSIS study says Asia defense spending is projected to surpass Europe's military expenditures by the end of 2012.
China leads the way in spending
The increase was most dramatic in China, where military spending since 2000 quadrupled to $89.9 billion in 2011. But the study said this number, based on official figures, may be low, noting some independent estimates put the figure as high as $140 billion.
China, which surpassed Japan's military budget in 2005, now ranks second behind the United States in total defense spending. But analysts say Beijing is not likely to catch up anytime soon with Washington, which spends more than $600 billion each year on its military.
"[China is] putting together a very formidable military force, but I don't see them as having a superpower status as of yet," says David Fouse, a professor at the Hawaii-based Asia/Pacific Center for Security Studies. "I think they're still looking at a very asymmetric defense relationship with the United States."
China's rise playing a role
China has defended its military buildup by saying that it is consistent with its rapidly emerging economy. It also says its new military capabilities do not imply it will take a more aggressive posture in the region.
But many of its neighbors seem to think otherwise, and have beefed up their defenses as they respond to what they see as China's increased assertiveness in defending its maritime claims.
CSIS project director David Berteau acknowledges that "there's no question" that the rise of China is "partly responsible" for the increased military spending across Asia.
Intentions not clear
But Fouse cautions that defense spending by itself isn't a clear gauge of any country's intentions. He says that territorial disputes throughout Asia have contributed to heightened military tensions.
"I think that each of these countries have territorial issues that they have to deal with their neighbors and their spending on defense is related to those security concerns," he says.
Cyber operations a concern
Asian countries are also concerned about the growing threat of cyber warfare, says John Blaxland, a defense analyst at the Australian National University.
"We know that cyber operations have been remarkably effective at drawing a wealth of data from otherwise confidential sources on various computer banks around the world, including in Australia and around the region," says Blaxland, who says many suspect Chinese involvement in the attacks.
"A lot of governments are afraid to place too much emphasis on it publicly, because it's actually very hard to pinpoint exactly where it's coming from," says Blaxland," though most people have a pretty solid idea of where it's originating from. Most of it's originating from China."
Cold War arms race not likely
The report said that the increased military spending in Asia likely means the United States will continue shifting its strategic focus toward the Asia-Pacific region.
But project director Berteau told reporters at the report's launch that he does not anticipate a major arms race in the region, saying military spending increases do not approach those seen during the Cold War.