Wednesday 18 May 2022 | 14:10 | 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.


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Unexpected lessons on measuring power in Asia

If the number of skyscrapers is an indication of a city’s prestige, then Pyongyang’s 16 would seem to dwarf the mere two that are found in Auckland.

Power can be judged in many ways. If a currency’s share of international transactions is any indication of leverage over the global economy, then the Chinese renminbi’s 1.8% share pales in comparison to the US dollar’s 40.5%.

Or take Japan, which is the most searched country on Google among Asian countries, with notable interest coming from Southeast Asia. Or look at Indonesia’s economy, projected by 2030 to overtake both Japan’s and Russia’s, hinting at future players in a rapidly changing region.

If the number of skyscrapers is an indication of a city’s prestige, then Pyongyang’s 16 would seem to dwarf the mere two that are found in Auckland.

Individually, these granular insights are interesting in their own right. But taken together, they begin to form a picture that is far more telling.

The 2018 Asia Power Index does just this. Launched today by the Lowy Institute, the Index is rich with myriad facts and stats which, brought together, form a nuanced picture of vastly different countries and the relationships between them.

Designed to be a widely applicable research tool for policymakers, academics, and media alike, the Index ranks 25 countries and territories according to the power they wield in Asia. It reaches as far west as Pakistan, as far north as Russia, and as far into the Pacific as Australia and New Zealand.

The United States also has a place in the Index, as the major external player in the region. Comprised of 114 indicators of power, across eight thematic measures, the Index is the most comprehensive assessment of power in Asia ever undertaken.

The big picture is compelling. The Index finds that the United States remains the pre-eminent power in Asia. China lags by 10 points but, as the emerging superpower, is rapidly closing in on the United States.

The gap between China, ranked 2nd, and Japan, ranked 3rd, is a startling 33 points – that’s the same difference as between Japan and Bangladesh, ranked in 18th place. Yet we find Tokyo to be the quintessential smart power, leveraging its limited economic and military resources to have outsized influence in the region.

Meanwhile, India is a giant of the future, with vast resources but unfulfilled potential.

Having spent 18 months working closely on this beast of a project, it’s fascinating to see where the unexpected value in such a data-rich resource lies.

The biggest tales can come from the smallest countries

What Singapore lacks in economic and military size, it makes up for with an influential network of regional relationships.

While you might expect the United States and China to lead the table, it is more surprising to find Singapore, a city-state of only 5.6 million, ranked 8th in the Index. What Singapore lacks in economic and military size, it makes up for with an influential network of regional relationships.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is ranked first among Index countries for efficacy in advancing the country’s diplomatic interests in the region. Singapore also tops the rankings for political stability and government effectiveness, and its citizens have visa-free access to 180 countries.

Singapore’s robust defence partnerships with other Asian counties are seen through the 253 bilateral training exercises it conducted with Index countries between 2012 and 2016, and its consultation pact with Australia, Malaysia, and New Zealand. But while its extensive trade with the region – valued at US$505 billion – raises its profile as a key commercial hub of Asia, maintaining a trade-to-GDP ratio of 318% is a double-edged sword.

Singapore paints the dichotomous picture of a highly stable country, particularly in institutional and political matters, with deeply entrenched structural vulnerabilities.

The data hardest to find is the most worth having

North Korea’s profile is also filled with a number of contradictions. Despite its hermetic nature, the level of interest in North Korean affairs has rarely been higher. Indeed, as a country with a negligible economy, self-elected diplomatic isolation, and a measly rank of 17 in the Index, it’s remarkable that Pyongyang occupies a significant portion of the Index leaders’ attention.

The prospective meeting between Kim Jong-un and US president Donald Trump obscures the position of considerable weakness that North Korea comes from. The Index reveals that aside from a top-five placement in military capability, North Korea flatlines on seven of the Index’s eight key measures of power. 

Quantitative assessments of this kind rarely extend to North Korea, in spite of the global intrigue surrounding this enigmatic state.

Quantitative assessments of this kind rarely extend to North Korea, in spite of the global intrigue surrounding the enigmatic state. This was – in our view – all the more reason to include North Korea as one of the 25 countries in the Index.

Gathering data about North Korea was perhaps not as difficult as expected (equally difficult and much less expected were the challenges involved in collecting data on Taiwan). Through a combination of stubborn sifting, mirror data as reported by other countries, and expert input, we were able to collate a significant collection of information on North Korea – with rewarding results. 

We invite you to dig into the Lowy Institute Asia Power Index – there’s something in there for everyone – and draw your own conclusions about shifting power dynamics in Asia. Drill down and compare countries across any indicator to discover your own granular insights. We’ve even included a weightings calculator that allows users to make their own assessments about the relative importance of the eight measures of power.

The aim behind this initiative is to further the terms of the debate, to back up the discourse with hard facts, to engage a wide public, and to draw new conclusions about the status quo.

Photo courtesy

Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index 2017

The 2017 Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index has extended its coverage to Asia: with 17 more countries, it now maps and ranks 60 of the most significant diplomatic networks of the world - all G20, OECD and Asian nations.

Asia’s educational arms race

Once again East Asian countries have dominated the global education tables. In recent weeks, both the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) published their rankings of education systems worldwide based on students’ skills and knowledge. Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan secured the top places across the board, with the city-state claiming first place in both instances.

So what lies behind East Asia’s success? Many countries in the region place significant cultural emphasis on education; this is reflected in the willingness of students to famously dedicate longer hours to extra schoolwork and tutoring, while parents are willing to spend more on their child’s education.

But to say these countries are living in ‘edutopia’ is to miss the point. While the rankings are commendable, critics often point out the weaknesses of the standardised testing on which TIMSS and PISA scoring is based; according to this line of argument, the tests measure students’ aptitude to take tests, rather than academic aptitude. To some, Singapore and its peers are mere beacons of rote learning. Additionally, the results may reflect a country’s superficial desire to perform well in the rankings, rather than a commitment to improving national standards of education.

Nevertheless, since being launched in 1995 and 2000 respectively, TIMSS and PISA have gained notable traction in global media. While recent coverage has been singing praise for East Asia, Australian journalists have been preoccupied writing headlines such as ‘Why Australia's PISA results are a catastrophe’ in light of its falling rankings.

This trumpeting of rankings hasn’t gone unnoticed. Policymakers have begun to watch the triennial release of results with growing trepidation. It’s no longer about having the best education system in absolute terms, but rather having the better education system in relative terms. In other words, a gain for Singapore is a loss for everyone else. While on a national level education is treated as a positive sum game (where the aim is to bring all students up to a certain level), on the international level it has become zero-sum. And so the real success story lies less in the test scores and more in the soft power that accompanies them. Education has become East Asia’s flagship product and the latest tool in a state’s soft-power toolkit.

Yet one striking trend in the rankings is less commonly contemplated: within Asia there is a prevalence for smaller countries and territories to top the list. Singapore is a city-state of around 5.7 million people, dwarfed by neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia. Similarly, Taiwan and South Korea lurk in China’s ever-expanding shadow. It is worth considering whether the educational arms race we are witnessing in Asia is driven to an extent by neighbourhood geopolitics.

Small neighbours must rely on an educated workforce if they hope to maintain and grow economies that are more sophisticated than their larger counterparts. When a territory is overshadowed by a country in other measures of geopolitical competition (landmass, natural resources, and population) human capital becomes the primary source of national power.

Furthermore, smaller geographies have proven they can use size to their advantage. When it comes to implementing education reforms, smaller is better; it tends to be easier to centralise control over education policy, cherry-pick successful policies and roll them out with relative ease. Small-neighbour status might just be the silver bullet for education that policymakers have been scrambling to put their finger on since the test results were published.

Whatever the reasons for Asia’s education success story, the global effects are tangible. Where until now knowledge transfers on teaching methods typically flowed from West to East, recent years have shown a reversal of this trend. British schools are looking to Asia’s well-reputed methods for teaching mathematics, while teachers are being flown over in hopes of raising the United Kingdom’s rankings. Similarly, if a budding expat with school-aged children were to seek advice from HSBC’s Expat Explorer, they would find Singapore at the top of the list for two years running.

There is a curiosity-piquing logic in the notion that education is an effective way for a small neighbour to punch above its weight internationally. If this is the case, perhaps these rankings are more than an over-mediatised tally of memorisation skills; they may be telling us something profound about the changing distribution of power in Asia.


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