Global spending on weapons totals more than $1.7tn (£1tn), and Russia has overtaken Britain and France to take third place in the world league table, according to the latest figures released by a leading research body on Tuesday.
While military expenditure fell last year in most western countries, including the US, which is facing serious budget deficits, Russia and China have continued to increase significantly their spending on weapons – by more than 9% and 6% respectively last year.
While the US remains by far the biggest military spender, with a defence budget amounting to $711bn last year, it is followed by China, which in 2011 spent an estimated $143bn on its armed forces, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri). China has increased its military spending by 170% in real terms since 2002, it says.
Russia spent nearly $72bn on arms last year, overtaking Britain ($62.7bn) and France ($62.5bn) according to Sipri.
It notes that Russia is planning further increases in its military spending, with draft budgets showing a 53% rise in real terms up to 2014.
However, Sipri adds that many analysts are doubtful whether the industry will be able to deliver on such ambitious plans after decades of stagnation following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
China’s increased military spending has caused concern among its neighbours, as well as the dominant Pacific power, the US. The recent announcement of a US “pivot” towards Asia is in part a response to such concerns, Sipri says.
It adds: “China’s extensive and growing trade relations with the countries in its neighbourhood have been marred by disputes – eg the border dispute with India, a dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands with Japan, and contested maritime borders with several nations in the South China Sea – all of which have led to increased tensions.”
However, the report says talk of an “arms race” in the region may be premature, as both data and analysis reveal a mixed pattern of trends in military expenditure and arms acquisition, with China far from the only driving factor.
Two countries where concerns over China do appear to have contributed to increased spending are India and Vietnam. India has increased military spending by 66% since 2002. While both internal conflicts and the long-running dispute with Pakistan remain key issues, India in many ways sees China as a rival for regional power.
Vietnam has increased military spending by 82% since 2003, and has invested heavily in its navy in recent years, partly due to tensions with China in the South China Sea. But the military spending of both India and Vietnam fell in real terms in 2011.
Middle East countries continued to increase their military budgets while Algeria – concerned about the Arab spring and revolutions in Tunisia and Libya – increased its military spending last year by a massive 40%.