Wednesday 18 May 2022 | 14:11 | SYDNEY
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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.


Latest publications

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.





Charting China, the (not always) super power

Whether high-profile concessional loans for a Sri Lankan port, large-scale Belt and Road deals with Islamabad, or an international push for its newly rebranded China Global Television Network, China’s efforts to boost its place in Asia haven’t gone unnoticed, particularly in Australia.

And while there’s much consensus that these initiatives are deliberate strategic moves by Beijing, there’s less consensus on the outcomes of China’s unprecedented economic largesse. Can the dividends of splashing out billions upon billions of renminbi into these ambitious projects be measured? And, if so, where in Asia are inroads being made?

The results of the 2019 Asia Power Index would seem to suggest that China’s endeavours in all things infrastructure, media and broader economic leverage are indeed paying off. The US once again sits at the top of the Index, but the power differential between Washington and Beijing has gone from 10 points to just 8.6 – we’re seeing progress in China’s score already in just the second iteration of the Asia Power Index. Meanwhile Japan and India, ranked third and fourth respectively, sit more than 30 points behind China, firming Beijing’s place as Washington’s only peer competitor.



China now leads in four of the eight core measures of power in the Index: economic resources, future resources, diplomatic influence and economic relationships. That’s up one compared to its lead in only three measures last year. China has overtaken the US in economic resources: despite a slowing growth rate its GDP grew by the size of Australia’s entire economy in 2018, speaking to the sheer scale.

Yet, taking a view below the headline power findings, the picture becomes more mixed. A newly introduced feature of the Index now maps bilateral relationships between all 25 countries of the Index in detail. The influence maps track inward and outward influence across 12 different metrics spanning trade and investment, defence flows, cultural ties and diplomacy. With this new innovation, we can gain a better understanding of how important China is to the other 24 countries of the Index, and, vice versa, how important partners in the region are to China.

Let’s take diplomacy. The influence maps measure the degree of alignment between any two countries in their votes on resolutions at the United Nations General Assembly. When it comes to China’s voting patterns, its average alignment across all countries in Asia is at a respectable 81%. This comfortably exceeds the US’s average alignment with the region at 26%, yet it falls short of the alignment levels of smaller powers such as Thailand and Vietnam, which tend to band together at the multilateral level.

There’s been talk of Beijing using its economic leverage to sway smaller powers to vote in alignment with China. And while the data shows that China is an important voting partner to its historical partners North Korea and Russia, with respectively 90% and 86% alignment in their votes, its sway is not ubiquitous across Asia. In fact, among other countries in Asia, notably in Southeast Asia, there’s little indication that the region at large is swayed by how China votes at the UN.

At the same time the data appears to show that China was selective in its voting alignment in 2018, favouring powers that are strategically pivotal in the region: Cambodia, Pakistan, North Korea and Vietnam.

It’s possible the results would show closer alignment with China if the dataset extended beyond the 25 Index countries (to Pacific Island nations, for example). Likewise, it would be useful to assess alignment when it comes to votes on issues sensitive to Beijing, such as on territorial disputes. Nevertheless, it’s significant that the bilateral voting data does not register Chinese multilateral sway in large areas of Asia.

Taking another example from the Index, the influence maps also capture Asia’s information landscape by tracking interest in proxy regional media outlets using internet search trends. Here too the results reveal China to be a laggard, despite rolling out a widely publicised $6.6 billion international media strategy in 2009 which allocated significant funds for opening new foreign bureaus and training foreign journalists.

China’s television broadcaster, CGTN, ranks as the 10th most popular broadcaster in the region, based on the search trends of other 23 Asian countries (North Korea isn’t included, for obvious reasons). The greatest interest China’s CGTN registers comes from Taiwan, accounting for 8% of Taiwan’s total searches for regional television broadcasters. However, its reach is inconsequential when compared to the United States’ CNN, which exceeds China’s CGTN by a staggering 78 points.

Meanwhile its most popular English-language newspaper – South China Morning Post – shows some improvement in reach from last years’ Index results, jumping five places and ranking 10th in the region. However, this Chinese outlet lags 60 points behind the United States and is eclipsed by the likes of India, Vietnam, Australia and Pakistan, to name a few. Similar trends are evident in international radio broadcasting.

The only media metric where China appears to be making some inroads is with its news agency, placing second in the region and with particular interest coming from Laos, Myanmar and Mongolia. But even here, the New York-based Associated Press outperforms Beijing-based Xinhua with double the score.

The results show that despite investing billions into its international media influence, China has some way to go in determining the fonts of information in Asia. The United States remains the dominant source of media across Asia after domestic media are discounted.

While the influence maps cannot be expected to give a complete picture of the outcomes of Chinese economic leverage, we are able to glean some insights on where Beijing is making some inroads, and where – perhaps surprisingly – it isn’t. What is apparent is the gradual pace at which diplomatic outcomes and cultural behaviours shift in light of new powerful players.


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