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Global spending on weapons reached record high with China spending most in 2020, report shows

Global spending on weapons reached record levels last year despite the economic ravages of the coronavirus with China, where the pandemic began, leading the arms race in Asia by a considerable margin.

Research carried out by the think-tank The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) shows that the amount spent on defence globally went up to $1.83 trillion (£1.29 trillion), a rise of almost four per cent in real terms over 2019.  

In 2010, Asian states had a 17.8 per cent share of the international weapons spending, but this had risen to 25 per cent by 2020. The main driver for this was China, whose 2020 budget of $12 billion (£8.47 billion), was greater than the combined defence budget increases in all other countries in the continent. This was despite a decline from 5.9 per cent of the GDP to 5.2 per cent year on year. 

In its authoritative annual “Military Balance” report on defence and geopolitics, the IISS analysed the growth of China’s “power projection.”

The report states: “Beijing seems intent on achieving primacy in its littoral areas, and while China’s maritime paramilitary forces have taken the lead – and are using facilities on Chinese-occupied features in the Spratly Islands as forward-operating bases in the South China Sea – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has maintained an ‘over-the-horizon’ presence.  

“China’s corvette numbers have more than doubled in the last five years, reaching 55 in 2020. Meanwhile, the anti-submarine warfare capability of China’s navy is increasing. Other naval shipbuilding has continued at pace, and the number of large amphibious vessels has doubled, to six, since 2015. This will increase as new vessels, including amphibious assault ships, are commissioned.”

The report finds that Beijing has concentrated on putting extensive support systems in place for military operations, increasing fleet support ships from seven to 12 in five years. Increased numbers of Y-20 heavy transports mean that the PLA Air Force has effectively doubled its heavy air transport fleet in the last four years.

The IISS’s analysts also offer a  “cautionary note, indicating that as China’s armed forces modernise and its power-projection capabilities grow, other aspects of Beijing’s plans – such as its drive to improve military training – will be at least as important in delivering successful and durable military capability.” 

Donald Trump had been among successive US presidents demanding that Nato’s European partners spend more on defence. 

“These countries continued to increase their defence expenditure as a proportion of GDP, but they have some way to go to reach the Alliance’s recommendation to spend per cent of GDP on defence by 2024. Although the pandemic caused a 7 per cent average economic contraction among NATO members, in 2020 only nine of the Alliance’s 28 European members met the 2 per cent target.” 

The report states: “Total European defence spending grew by 2 per cent in real terms in 2020.

“This was more modest than the 4.1 per cent uplift seen in 2019, but the commitment by key players to increase their defence budgets in 2021 and beyond,” if adhered to, could mean that “in 2021 Europe could be the region with the fastest growth in global defence spending.” 

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