Friday 27 Nov 2020 | 17:17 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The Power and Diplomacy Program conducts research on the implications of the world's economic transformation for war, peace and the global balance of power in the twenty-first century. It does this using innovative and data driven methodologies to understand shifts in political economies, military balance and diplomatic networks. The program is organised around two major annual projects – the Asia Power Index and the Global Diplomacy Index – and holds a series of events on and in the region, independently and in partnership with other organisations.


The Asia Power Index, launched in 2018, represents the largest comparative assessment of power in the region ever undertaken. The project assesses 25 countries and territories in terms of their military capability and defence networks, economic resources and relationships, diplomatic and cultural influence, and resilience and future trends. The digital platform for the Index serves an analytical tool for sharpening debate on power dynamics. Users can plot the distribution of resources and influence in Asia on an interactive map, compare variations in performance within and between countries, adjust the principal weightings of the Index, and drill down into hundreds of unique data points and findings.


In 2016, the Lowy Institute released the Global Diplomacy Index, an interactive tool which maps and ranks the diplomatic networks of all Indo-Pacific, G20 and OECD states. The interactive allows readers to visualise some of the most significant diplomatic networks in the world, see where states are represented – by city, country, and type of diplomatic mission – and rank countries according to the size of their diplomatic network.



Alex Oliver
Director of Research
Hervé Lemahieu
Director, Power and Diplomacy Program
Bobo Lo
Nonresident Fellow
Alyssa Leng
Research Associate, Power and Diplomacy Program

Latest publications

Power in Asia in five charts

How should one think about power in Asia? Headlines would suggest that US-China competition is all that matters. But although the US and China wield substantially more power than most, there are still 24 other players in the regional game. Recognising the different ways these states generate and use their power is crucial in understanding the underlying structure and dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.

The 2020 Asia Power Index, released today, reveals a bottom-heavy power structure in Asia. Most countries are minor or middle powers. Smaller or developing economies are typically less powerful, while bigger or more developed economies come out in front. The cut-off point between these two groups is somewhere around Singapore – a country which shows that at least up to a point, sophistication can sometimes make up for size.

Far away at the top of the food chain sit the US and China. The distance between the two superpowers and everyone else has grown in the three years the Index has measured power, with Japan and India, among others, losing ground.

Zooming in to the US and China themselves shows that while the US is still the most powerful country in Asia, China is not far behind. And momentum is on China’s side. 2019 saw China make gains in the Index, while the US lost significant ground this year.

Notably, each superpower’s strengths are exactly the other’s weaknesses. At home, the US maintains strong military capabilities and is resilient to threats from abroad. Overseas, it exerts significant cultural influence in the Indo-Pacific, and has deep relationships in its defence networks. But across the Pacific Ocean, China is playing by its own rules, rather than trying to beat the US at its own game. Its economic and diplomatic links in Asia are key to its power in the region, alongside its current and future economic heft.

The next most powerful countries in Asia are Japan and India. Overall, they hold similar levels of power, and both rank highly in their economic capability and cultural influence.

But while Japan is a mature and waning advanced economy, India is a young and emerging market. India’s cultural influence comes from strong media influence and migrant drawing power in South Asia, alongside a large diaspora regionally, whereas Japan commands significant popularity with travellers and netizens online more broadly.

The different approaches the two states take with power is also clear. Japan’s strengths come from its relationships with others, most prominently in the diplomatic sphere, but also in the defence and economic realms. On the other hand, India remains more internally focused, with stronger military capabilities and resilience. Its expected economic size and favourable demographics in the future also serve to bolster its power.

That leaves the rest of the region. Of the 20 remaining countries, the largest natural grouping falls to the ten Southeast Asian states, which often come together under the banner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Though these countries hold differing levels of influence in the Indo-Pacific, the foundations of their power share some common characteristics.

Southeast Asian countries derive more of their power from diplomatic influence than anything else, suggesting that active participation in ASEAN and teaming up in other multilateral forums, including the United Nations, has paid dividends. Economic relationships mean more for their power than their own domestic economic capabilities, according with their relatively small economic size. But perhaps surprisingly for these fast-growing developing economies, perceptions of their future resources don’t mean much for their power today.

The similarities between Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are also striking. Despite extremely varied political systems, populations and economic structures, these countries project highly similar levels of power derived from virtually identical bases.

What about Covid-19 and its effects on power in Asia? In the region, countries such as Taiwan and New Zealand (top right quadrant below) that have suppressed the virus domestically have mostly seen their efforts pay off with improvements to their international reputations. The opposite can be said of nations where control over the pandemic is less established, notably including the United States, Russia, Indonesia and India (bottom left quadrant). China is a notable exception, being the only country to suffer a hit to its reputation abroad in the eyes of foreign policy and health exports, despite above-average pandemic performance.

It’s hard to say how long these reputational changes will last and what effects they may have in the long run – the horizon on which power changes. But in the immediate future, where vaccine diplomacy looms and membership in travel bubbles is likely to remain fluid, there’s something to be said for having a good reputation for getting coronavirus under control.

The story of power in Asia is a big and complicated one, as befits a complex and rapidly evolving region. It is far more than a playground for competition between the US and China, with different dynamics in various geographical zones and among players of different standing. Understanding its nuance will only become more important in the turbulent world Covid-19 is ushering in.

Asia Power Index 2020

The annual Asia Power Index measures resources and influence to assess the relative power of states in Asia. It is an analytical tool that ranks 26 countries and territories in terms of what they have, and what they do with what they have — reaching as far west as Pakistan, as far north as Russia, and as far into the Pacific as Australia and the United States. The 2020 edition — which covers three years of data — is the most comprehensive assessment of the changing distribution of power in Asia so far. Among other things, it aims to sharpen the debate on the geopolitical consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVIDcast Episode 6: Geopolitics and the coronavirus pandemic

COVIDcast is a Lowy Institute pop-up podcast for anyone interested in understanding the effect of coronavirus on global politics. Each week for the next few weeks, Lowy Institute experts will sit down to discuss the implications of coronavirus for the world.

In episode 6, the Director of Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia Program, Ben Bland, sits down with Hervé Lemahieu to discuss geopolitics and the coronavirus pandemic. 

A middle-power moment

“Small states like Singapore can do little to influence the big powers, but we are not entirely without agency.” When Lee Hsien Loong delivered his keynote at the Shangri-La Dialogue back in June, his pragmatism over great-power competition surprised many (some more pleasantly than others). But what didn’t garner much attention was his expression of hope for a multilateral response.

“We need to build a broader regional and international architecture of cooperation. When groups of countries deepen their economic cooperation, they will enhance not just their shared prosperity but also their collective security.” 

New data from the 2019 Asia Power Index backs Lee’s sense that multilateralism between second-tier powers is the way forward. The Asia Power Index compares the relative power of 25 countries across 126 indicators of power (for a rundown of the results, read here). But the overall power ranking only tells part of the story. A closer look at the results reveals – quantitatively – how effective middle powers are at rebalancing regional power dynamics by banding together, forming a critical part of the strategic equation. 

The Index assesses not only what a country has (its resources) but also what it does with what it has (its influence). A secondary analysis, called the Power Gap, charts whether a country is an overachiever – with outsized influence compared to its resources – or an underachiever, where influence falls short.

The results are telling: middle powers in Asia top the Power Gap’s list of overachievers.

Having repeated this exercise twice, it's apparent that Japan (admittedly a “major” power according to our results), South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia are all on course to continue overachieving in the future, after seeing a rise in their Power Gap scores between the 2018 and 2019 Index results.

The Index’s overachievers have one key approach in common: they have deliberately invested in establishing deep ties with like-minded countries in order to bolster their overall power. And the benefits of this middle power cooperation is evident across the Index.

Asia’s middle powers lead the way in forging trade agreements with other Asian partners. With 15, Singapore under Lee’s stewardship enjoys the most regional free-trade agreements, followed by Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.

Middle-power solidarity is playing out on subtler fronts as well.

But, more significantly, Japan, the greatest overachiever in the Power Gap for a second year running, played a pivotal role in getting the TPP-11 agreement over the line. This move has taken on new strategic significance as economic dependencies are increasingly being weaponised by the two superpowers. Amid spiralling trade tensions, an Asia without the TPP-11 would be entirely at the mercy of a fickle US president and caught in a growing geo-economic dependency trap with the largest economic player, China. 

Middle-power solidarity is playing out on subtler fronts as well. New data on UN voting patterns tracks how often any two countries are aligned in their votes on resolutions at the UN General Assembly. The data reveals that in 2018, middle powers largely ignored the voting preferences of superpowers US and China in favour of banding together with minor and middle powers. South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan, and the Philippines all failed to register either the US or China as one of their top three voting partners among regional players, preferring to align with smaller Asian players instead.

Furthermore, a qualitative assessment by experts puts Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan as having the most effective foreign-policy bureaucracies in the region, in that order. When it comes to defence diplomacy, Singapore is only second to the US for the number of joint training exercises it has undertaken in the region, completing an estimated 375 between 2013 and 2017. Australia, Malaysia, and Japan follow close suit. 

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office/Flickr)

The benefits of banding together become apparent when contrasted with ostracism of Taiwan. Following a persistent campaign by Beijing, Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition has waned globally, losing five partners since 2016 and with prospects of the Solomon Islands going next. Without UN membership, it is systematically omitted from global international databases, despite having a population size nearly on par with Australia’s and an economy akin to Thailand’s.

It’s no coincidence that Taiwan is the only Index player to register a downward shift in its overall power score, despite attempts to bolster regional ties with its New Southbound Policy. Furthermore, it falls into the bottom three in the Power Gap, standing out as one of Asia’s greatest underachievers. Unlike other middle powers in the region, Taiwan is unable to benefit from regional groupings like ASEAN, which, while often lamented, proves that a fragmented voice is a voice nonetheless.

China’s geopolitical revisionism in its territorial disputes and the US’s economic revisionism in the global trading order has cast other strategic actors into the shadows. While the US maintains its decades-held leadership of multilateralism, there’s a growing tension between this role and its “America First” foreign policy. Meanwhile, the support for multilateral avenues by second-tier powers is evident in actions as much as words, with economic, military, and diplomatic cooperation on the rise. And their position as overachievers demonstrates, in numbers, how effective the middle-power strategy of banding together can be.

In short, the Asia Power Index makes a data-backed argument in favour of multilateralism. And middle-power collaboration will only be strengthened as great-power relations heat up. The question remains as to how durable these partnerships will be. Second-tier players need to be careful that short-term interests don’t drive wedges between them, creating obstacles for their common long-term goals.






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