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A sia’s economic growth has many effects, not least of which is providing more money for governments to buy arms. So it should come as no surprise that the most authoritative assessment of the world’s conventional arms market puts Asian nations at the top of the list of arms purchasers.

There should be more productive ways to put Asia’s hard-earned money to work, but status concerns and sellers eager to support their domestic industries will keep tempting those governments. Saying no takes discipline and restraint: Neither has been much in evidence in recent years.

According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, Asia has accounted for nearly 50 percent of the total value of new arms transfer agreements with developing countries since 2001. This affords the region the dubious honor of having surpassed the Near East as the world’s top conventional weapons market. (That region has been eclipsed as a result of a slowdown in arms purchases by Saudi Arabia.) Sales increased significantly last year, jumping from $15.1 billion in 2003 to nearly $22 billion in 2004, marking the highest level of sales since 2000.

Among individual states, India stands out. It has embarked on the biggest purchasing campaign: Delhi signed $5.7 billion in arms deals last year. Saudi Arabia, a longtime leader in the rankings, came in second, with $2.9 billion in new agreements. China, with $2.2 billion, ranked third; Egypt, Oman and Israel ranked fourth, fifth and sixth.

India’s $15.7 billion in orders from 1996 to 2004 put it just ahead of China ($15.3 billion) to win pride of place as the developing world’s largest weapons buyer. These purchases are part of a defense modernization program that reflects the government’s desire to become a real force in the region; political credibility would seem to rest on a strong military.

The United States and Russia are the two biggest arms suppliers; they signed agreements worth $7 billion and $6 billion, respectively, in 2004. Together, they accounted for 60 percent of the $21.8 billion in sales to developing countries. In terms of actual deliveries, the U.S. provided $18.6 billion last year; more than half (53.4 percent) went to developing countries. Russia supplied a mere $4.6 billion, and France was close behind with $4.4 billion.

While Russia cannot be blamed for the explosive growth of arms sales in Asia, it has profited from them. Moscow has captured nearly half the regional arms market, even as its share of the global market has declined. Its 48.1 percent share of the regional arms market is more than two times that of the U.S., and represents more than four-fifths of Russian global sales from 2001-2004. Major Russian clients include India, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Russia’s growing clout is the result of aggressive marketing programs that include more flexible and creative financing options. Especially worrisome are agreements that set up joint production programs and effectively transfer technology — and help establish and advance local defense industries. These local producers create their own constituencies for continuing and increasing defense budgets.

Russia has long dealt with China. Beijing wants more and more sophisticated weapons from Russia. The military exercise the two countries held last month was, among other things, a marketing device to showcase more advanced technologies. If the past is any precedent, Beijing will be signing more arms deals with Russian manufacturers in the months ahead as part of the two countries’ strategic partnership.

Military modernization is the last of China’s “four modernizations.” Since 2001, China has signed agreements to buy $10.4 billion in weapons, more than any other developing nation. And those figures underestimate the real growth in its arms capability since China also produces many of its own weapons, which are not reflected in the CRS study.

Like India, China sees a modern military as an essential component of national power and vital to its status as a regional and global power. Of course, Chinese military planners are ever mindful of the cross-strait balance and wary of Taiwan’s own defense modernization plans.

Fortunately for them, political paralysis within Taipei has prevented the Taiwan government from moving forward with a large package of arms purchases from the U.S. The transactions have been on hold since 2001, much to the dismay of the U.S. government. While some might applaud Taiwan’s restraint, it is not necessarily helpful: It may only undermine stability in the Taiwan Strait.

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