The global arms trade has grown by nearly a quarter over the last four years, with new growth mainly in poorer countries and India now officially the world's biggest importer of arms, research has revealed.

Statistics published on Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute show that demand from emerging economies – in particular India – drove the volume of worldwide arms transfers between 2007 and 2011 to a level 24% higher than in the previous four years.

Alongside India the five largest arms importers today are all Asian states, according to the data, prompting fears of an arms race in a region still blighted by deep poverty.

"India has long been a major purchaser of weapons. Now it is the biggest in the world," said Pieter Wezeman, a researcher at the institute.

Wezeman said India's top ranking was in part due to Delhi increasing its arms spend but also to China's increasing ability to produce its own weapons.

India is now importing twice as many arms as China, its main regional rival, the institute's data shows. Three other large recipients of arms in 2007–2011 were South Korea, Pakistan, and Singapore.

One recent Indian deal alone – for 126 fighter jets worth up to £10bn – sparked fierce competition. The French Rafale aircraft is favoured to win the contract despite lobbying by David Cameron for the Eurofighter Typhoon, which is a third British. By some estimates, India will spend more than £100bn on weapons and systems in the next 15 years.

Manoj Joshi, a security expert and journalist in Delhi, said India was trying to overcome decades of underinvestment: "There is a huge backlog and India is not so much racing as running as hard as she can to stay still. Modernising the armed forces here is like running up an escalator.".

Other deals include further fighter jets, transport planes, submarines and a range of naval vessels. Tanks, small arms and artillery also all need replacement, Indian officials say.

Tensions between China and India have risen in recent years and Beijing has become one of Pakistan's biggest weapons suppliers.

Joshi said the insititute's figures for India exaggerated the country's expenditure. "Many of the headline announcements of purchases take years and years to actually be implemented or don't happen at all. The actual sums spent are more modest," he said.

Many fear problems of graft in countries where corruption is endemic. A number of firms have been banned from selling to India by the authorities after investigations into bribery.

The figures also show that leading suppliers continued to deliver weapons to Middle Eastern countries during the Arab spring. Despite a review in 2011 of its arms transfer policies towards the region, the US remains a main supplier to both Tunisia and Egypt.

In 2011, the US delivered 45 M-1A1 tanks to Egypt and agreed to deliver 125 more.

"There was all sorts of talk of change of arms policies following the Arab spring but there was very little change in reality," Wezeman said. "An arms embargo on Libya was generally respected but has now been lifted and so we may see a resumption of exports [to Tripoli]. In Egypt the US decided not to change any export policies and continued to supply arms [to the government] and the financial means as military aid to purchase them."

The institute also underlines the continuing role of Russia in arms supplies to Syria.

Last year Russia continued deliveries of surface to air and coastal defence missile systems, as well as securing an order for 36 Yak-130 trainer–cum-combat aircraft.

These deliveries contributed to a 580% increase in the volume of Syrian arms imports between 2002–2006 and 2007–11, the report says.

"Syria is not an important market for Russia but Russia has been by far the largest supplier and shown itself completely unwilling to put any constraints on transfers," said Wezeman. "Russia has clearly indicated that it will continue supplying the Assad regime despite what is happening."

The US remains by far the world's largest supplier of arms. A recent deal with Saudi Arabia for combat aircraft could be worth $30bn over several decades.

Guardian News and Media 2012

Photo by Defence19 [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons