A new index that measures a government's risk of corruption in defence spending has flagged alarming trends among most of the 17 Asia-Pacific governments assessed by Transparency International UK (TI-UK).
The London-based think-tank said researchers for its latest Government Defence Anti-Corruption Index found more than half - including Indonesia - have at least a "high risk" of defence corruption.
"In some rising Asian powers, there is a gulf between growing military spending and adequate checks and balances on military elites," according to the TI-UK report, which was first released last month.
"In 65 per cent of the countries we studied, public trust in the military's ability and will to address corruption was very low," said researchers.
The study, conducted over the last two years, examined how a government performed in several risk areas - corruption, political, financial, personnel, operations and procurement - before it is given a grade between "A" and "F", with the former awarded for "low risk" and the latter for a "critical" level of risk.
How they fared
1. New Zealand A
2. Australia B
3. Japan B
4. Singapore B
5. Taiwan B
6. South Korea C
7. Bangladesh D
8. India D
9. Indonesia D
10. Malaysia D
11. Philippines D
12. China E
13. Pakistan E
14. Sri Lanka E
15. Thailand E
16. Cambodia F
17. Myanmar F
Note: "A" awarded for low risk; "F" for critical level of risk
SOURCE: TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL UK
Of the 17 put under the microscope for this year's index, seven are from Asean, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. China, Japan, Australia, Pakistan and others make up the rest.
"We are particularly keen on looking at Asean countries... especially given the recent release of the Asean Political-Security Community Blueprint 2025 which promotes 'greater transparency and understanding of defence policies and security perceptions' as one of its key elements," lead researcher Tehmina Abbas told The Straits Times yesterday.
Fast economic growth in the region has led to rapid expansion in military spending, often fuelled by security tensions such as the South China Sea territorial dispute and the threat posed by global terrorism.
The 17 governments studied had spent about US$432 billion (S$607 billion) on defence last year, comprising 24.5 per cent of global military spending, according to TI-UK.
Only six out of the 17 governments make public their defence budgets with enough detail to enable public oversight. With the exception of Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea, parliamentary defence committees are unable to exert meaningful influence on defence decision-making.
The solitary "A" grade in the index was given to New Zealand, the only country in the region said to have a robust approach to addressing corruption risks in operations.
Along with Australia, Japan and Taiwan, Singapore was graded "B", the top Asean performer, due to the measures it has in place to ensure financial control over its military. Like New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, Singapore also does not permit "off-budget" expenditures, a major factor in countries with high risk ratings.
The worst performers include China, as well as Asean nations such as Thailand and Myanmar.
"No information is available on acquisition planning and only broad details are disclosed on actual and planned purchases (for China)," said TI-UK. It added that there are no institutions for external audit in China or Thailand, while the independence and effectiveness of audit bodies in Cambodia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are "seriously questionable".
The spotlight on defence spending in Asean comes after the latest data put out by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) in April showed military spending by Asean nations more than doubling - from US$15.7 billion to US$34.9 billion - between 2000 and 2013, measured in constant 2011 US dollars.
The military budget for Indonesia, for instance, more than quadrupled over the same period to US$8.4 billion, while Singapore raised its budget by nearly a quarter, to US$9.1 billion in 2013, said Sipri.
By comparison, Chinese military spending increased by 441 per cent in the last decade and now accounts for around 12 per cent of the world's defence spending, added TI-UK.