Overweight and obesity in Asian children are increasing at an alarming rate; therefore a better understanding of the relationship between BMI and percentage body fat (%BF) in this population is important. A total of 1039 children aged 8–10 years, encompassing a wide BMI range, were recruited from China, Lebanon, Malaysia, The Philippines and Thailand. Body composition was determined using the 2H dilution technique to quantify total body water and subsequently fat mass, fat-free mass and %BF. Ethnic differences in the BMI–%BF relationship were found; for example, %BF in Filipino boys was approximately 2 % lower than in their Thai and Malay counterparts. In contrast, Thai girls had approximately 2·0 % higher %BF values than in their Chinese, Lebanese, Filipino and Malay counterparts at a given BMI. However, the ethnic difference in the BMI–%BF relationship varied by BMI. Compared with Caucasian children of the same age, Asian children had 3–6 units lower BMI at a given %BF. Approximately one-third of the obese Asian children (%BF above 25 % for boys and above 30 % for girls) in the study were not identified using the WHO classification and more than half using the International Obesity Task Force classification. Use of the Chinese classification increased the sensitivity. Results confirmed the necessity to consider ethnic differences in body composition when developing BMI cut-points and other obesity criteria in Asian children.