Global military spending hit record levels in 2020 amid Covid-19 pandemic, says think-tank

A Chinese naval ship takes part in a multinational naval exercise in the Arabian Sea near Pakistan's port city of Karachi on Feb 15, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - Global military spending, driven in part by Chinese naval expansion, reached record levels in 2020 despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic contraction, a British think-tank said on Thursday (Feb 25).

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said military spending reached US$1.8 trillion (S$2.3 trillion) last year - a 3.9 per cent increase in real terms over figures for 2019.

The London-based think-tank said in its annual "Military Balance" publication that expenditure rose "despite the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent contraction in global economic output".

The United States remained the world's largest defence spender in 2020, IISS said, accounting for 40 per cent of US$738 billion globally.

China, by comparison, accounted for 10.6 per cent or US$193.3 billion.

Beijing's military spending was the driving force behind growth in Asia's overall defence expenditure, and accounted for 25 per cent of the continent's spending in 2020.

Asia's upward trend in military expenditure continued last year albeit at a slightly slower pace than in 2019.

"Several countries adjusted their defence budgets to redirect funds to crisis relief or economic stimulus measures," the IISS said.

"However, others simply reduced or deferred planned spending growth rather than implementing cuts," it added.

The IISS also highlighted Chinese military expansion and the significant growth of its naval fleet, a response driven in part by to Beijing's ambitions in the South China Sea.

Total European defence spending grew by 2 per cent in real terms in 2020, the IISS said.

Europe's Nato members also continued increasing military expenditure, continuing a trend seen every year since 2014 as threat perceptions sharpened following Russia's seizure of Crimea.

However, most Nato members are still far from the objective of devoting two percent of their GDP to defence by 2024.

In 2020 only nine of the alliance's European members met the target.

"The commitment by key players to increase their defence budgets in 2021 and beyond signals an intention to avoid the cuts that followed the 2007-08 financial crisis," the report said referring to European nations like Britain, France, Germany and Italy.

In 2019, the world saw the largest recorded increase in military spending a decade, with 4 per cent growth, fuelled by rivalry between major powers and a race for new technologies.

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