As Rupert Cornwell reports, the trend stems from familiar tensions in the Middle East as well as new ones centred on China.
The latest survey of the London-based defence think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is unequivocal. In the West, defence spending may be falling after the end of the Cold War, but for the world's arms salesmen, boom times are here again. After jumping 13 per cent in 1995, arms sales rose 8 per cent to $40bn (pounds 25bn) last year, with Britain one of the prime beneficiaries.
According to yesterday's edition of The Military Balance, for defence analysts what Wisden is for cricket lovers , only the United States, with 43 per cent, outstripped Britain's 22 per cent share of the international arms market. France was third with 14 per cent and Russia accounted for just 8 per cent, compared with over 35 per cent in the heyday of the Soviet Union.
This year, the UK's performance may be hampered by the tougher arms sales guidelines promised by the Labour government under its new "ethical" foreign policy. In 1996, however, deliveries under huge existing contracts with Saudi Arabia helped lift Britain's arms sales to a record $8.8bn (pounds 5.4bn).
As throughout the last decade, Saudi Arabia was by far the largest individual market with purchases of $9bn in 1996 - almost three times those of the next largest importer, Egypt, lifting the total of Saudi imports since 1987 to $90bn (pounds 55bn).
But while the Middle East, where tensions are increasing anew, is likely to remain for the foreseeable future the largest single market for arms, China's emergence as a regional superpower, Japan's higher defence posture and dynamic local economies have combined to push East Asia rapidly up the league table. In 1996, the region took 23 per cent of international arms deliveries, with the fastest growth in Singapore, China and Indonesia - the latter now a target of curbs on exports from Britain as a result of its repressive policies in East Timor.
Even so, the IISS noted yesterday, internal conflicts in the states of the region were at their lowest ebb in 30 years. China might not yet have the military resources "to project a major conventional force beyond its territory", the survey argued, but its neighbours are clearly taking no chances.
The arms purchases were "clearly geared to external use", Michael Williams, chief Asia specialist of the IISS, said yesterday, pointing to a host of developments including Thailand's commissioning of an aircraft carrier, the Chakri Naruebet, and the first deliveries of new F-16 and Mirage combat aircraft to Taiwan.
Contrary to the hopes of the US arms industry, one group of countries unlikely to be providing major new orders are Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. All three are theoretically required to modernise their armed forces in preparation for Nato membership; in practice a lack of money will delay significant extra defence spending for years.
"The real outcome will be decided by what they can afford, rather than what the US regards as a military requirement," notes the IISS.
Nor will the US get much joy from older members of the Alliance in its attempts to spread the $35bn-plus bill for Nato enlargement. European public opinion is squarely against any extra defence spending, and is unlikely to be impressed by threats in the US Senate to tie US approval of enlargement to a cut in the amount Washington must pay.
"The omens are not good for burden sharing," the survey declared with notable understatement.Reuse content