Commentary | 03 September 2019

Middle-power bonding has major advantages for ‘overachievers’

Originally published in The Australian.

  • Bonnie Bley

Originally published in The Australian.

  • Bonnie Bley

“Small states like Singapore can do little to influence the big powers, but we are not entirely without agency.” When Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, delivered his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue back in June, his pragmatism about great-power competition surprised many. 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 co-operation. When groups of countries deepen their economic co-operation, they will enhance not just their shared prosperity but also their collective security.”

Recent data from the Lowy Institute’s 2019 Asia Power Index backs Lee’s argument that multilateralism between second-tier powers is the way forward. The index compares the relative power of 25 countries across 126 indicators of power, but countries’ overall power rankings tell only 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 with 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. Japan (admittedly a major power according to our results) leads the list, followed in close suit by South Korea, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. Having repeated this exercise twice — the first index was released in 2018 — it’s apparent that Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are all on course to continue overachieving in the future.

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 co-operation is evident across the index.

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

More significantly, Japan, the greatest overachiever in the Power Gap for a second year running, played a pivotal role in getting the Trans-Pacific Partnership-11 agreement over the line. This move has taken on new strategic significance 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 last year, middle powers largely ignored the voting preferences of the 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. Meanwhile, 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. Australia, Malaysia, and Japan follow closely.

The benefits of banding together become apparent when contrasted with the 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 international databases, despite having a population size nearly on par with Australia’s and an economy akin to Thailand’s. It’s no coincidence Taiwan is the only index player to register a downward shift in its overall power score, and it falls into the bottom three in the Power Gap, standing out as one of Asia’s greatest underachievers.

While the US maintains its decades-held position as a champion of multilateralism, there’s a growing tension between this role and its new “America First” foreign policy. This, alongside China’s growing geopolitical assertiveness in the region, is changing the status quo as we know it, presenting real opportunities for second-tier powers. Shared challenges incentivise second-tier powers to work together by necessity.

And the Asia Power Index shows — in numbers — how effective the middle-power strategy of banding together can be. In short, the results reveal a data-backed argument in favour of multilateralism. And as great-power relations heat up, middle-power collaboration will only be strengthened.