Which country is the most powerful in Asia? You probably have an immediate answer to that question, but here’s another: what is power in the first place?
“Power is like the weather. Everyone depends on it and talks about it, but few understand it,” Joseph Nye, Jr wrote in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.
Many would likely agree with the classic formulation that power in international relations is the ability of a state to influence other states. Hard power achieves this through coercion, either military or economic, and soft power (a term coined by Nye in the 1980s) achieves this through attraction, or as Nye put it, “getting others to want the outcomes that you want.” Few states manifest one form of power exclusively, with most countries opting for a mix of hard and soft power, circumstances depending. This dichotomy helps us understand power, but in a sense oversimplifies it.
There’s more to power than just considering how states use it — where does it come from?
New research from the Lowy Institute aims to beef up our understanding of power in Asia by quantifying it in a comprehensive manner. Compiled as an index, the Lowy research — formally the Asia Power Index — does more than just produce a who’s who list of powerful countries; it highlights the factors on which that ranking rests. Lowy uses eight measures of power, split between resource measures and influence measures — essentially what a state has and how it uses it — to assess the 25 countries included in the ranking. The overall ranking is a weighted average across the eight measures of power but the report also breaks out the ranking in each individual measure, as some countries excel in specific areas and fall far behind in others. Importantly, the index’s website allows for users to alter the weighting of different measures to suit their own thoughts on what the most important facets of power are.
The resource measures are economic resources, military capability, resilience, and future trends; the influence measures are diplomatic influence, economic relationships, defense networks, and cultural influence. Each measure is underpinned by submeasures and various indicators that inform those measures, resting the index on an immense mountain of data.
For example, the resilience measure is defined as “the capacity to deter real or potential threats to state stability” and it is measured in terms of geoeconomic security, geopolitical security, and internal institutional stability. Underneath geoeconomic security are indicators like diversity of export products, dependency on primary trade partner, and net energy balance while under geopolitical security are measures like landmass, population relative to neighbors, and interstate conflict legacies.
In the overall ranking the United States came out on top with a score of 85, followed by China with a score of 75.5. Both are categorized as “super powers.” Two countries fall into the next tier, the “major powers,” and are separated from the top by nearly 40 points — Japan with 42.1 points and India with 41.5 points. The next 13 countries — led by Russia (33.3 points) and Australia (32.5) — are the “middle powers.” The remaining eight countries, with Nepal at the bottom with 3.1 points, are “minor powers.”
Network, Network, Network
What surprised the researchers, Herve Lemahieu and Bonnie Bley — both research fellows and Lemahieu also the director of the Asia Power Index Project at the Lowy Institute — said in an interview with The Diplomat, was that the results challenged the standard conclusion across much of Asia that China is already on top. Political narratives being what they are, we often discuss China as rising or having already risen and the United States as in decline or retreat in Asia.
The source of the United States’ pre-eminence is clear in the data. In terms of defense networks the U.S. comes in first and China falls back to eighth. In every other measure China ranks first or second, with the gaps usually tight but wider for military capabilities and cultural influence. But when it comes to defense networks China finds itself behind not only the United States but Australia, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, and Malaysia.
Digging deeper, the United States gets a perfect score of 100 for a regional alliance network while China slips back to 10th, a measure which looks even worse with the numerical score, 6.7 points. When your only defense partner is North Korea, your network is a bit thin.
On the other hand, the data underscores that the U.S. alliance network in Asia is the bedrock of its continued pre-eminence in the region (with military capabilities and interestingly enough, cultural influence, also playing a role). U.S. President Donald Trump’s apparent disdain for the network is worrisome; here we can cite his occasional comments about Japan and South Korea not bearing enough of the costs of the defense alliance, a weird tiff with Australia, and the reputational implications of touting an “America First” mindset among partners. If Trump’s Asia policy is more self-interested, pre-existing concerns among U.S. allies in Asia about the possibilities of abandonment — which has been a long-term theme — have new fuel.
Last Thursday, the New York Times reported that Trump had requested that the Defense Department draw up options for reducing U.S. forces in South Korea. Officials couched the order as not the preparation of a bargaining chip for North Korea, but rather preparation for the situation after a peace treaty between the two Koreas. The New York Times noted, “Trump has been determined to withdraw troops from South Korea, arguing that the United States is not adequately compensated for the cost of maintaining them, that the troops are mainly protecting Japan and that decades of American military presence had not prevented the North from becoming a nuclear threat.” The U.S. presence in South Korea — about 28,500 soldiers strong — has never been solely about North Korea and a drawdown would play easily into the idea of an America in retreat from Asia.
Gaps and Other Surprises
Another surprise in the Index is in the gaps between countries. Lemahieu noted that the gap between China and Japan (a difference of 33.4 points) is as large as the gap between Japan and Bangladesh. In other terms, the difference in power between Japan and China is the same as the difference in power between Bangladesh and Japan.
There are other surprises buried in the rankings, the researchers said. For example, Singapore, which comes in overall at eighth, does particularly well in terms of influence measures — coming in fourth for economic relationships and fifth for defense networks. North Korea, on the other hand, comes in at 17th in the overall ranking, but a look under the hood reveals that Pyongyang’s military capability measure — thanks largely to its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities — make up for bottom-of-the-barrel scores in every other measure. In the military capability measure, North Korea settles in fifth place; in every other category it ranks below 19th.
Flatlining in every other measure, Lemahieu said, is indicative of an “incredibly brittle state.”
“You could say President Trump has been duped into a summit with a power that is negligible.” Further, Lemahieu commented, North Korea’s nuclear capability is a “blunt tool,” not something Pyongyang can use without devastating consequences.
Power is relative and complex. Lowy intends to update the ranking yearly, which should yield an important view on how power is evolving in Asia.
Will China’s continued rise and Trump’s presidency change the order at the top? Will the flurry of diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula — and the desired denuclearization — lower North Korea’s military capability measure and give some life to its dormant aspects of power, like economic relationships?
With global wealth and power shifting eastwards, as the Lowy report notes, understanding the dynamic nature of power in Asia will be vital. While China and the United States headline this article, there’s much more buried in the index for analysts and policymakers to consider.