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China is catching up to the US, except on this key measure

The Lowy Institute Power Index shows that China remains a lonely superpower. Does that matter?

John-Henry Krueger of the US and Hongzhi Xu of China in the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Montreal in March (Photo: Minas Panagiotakis via Getty)
John-Henry Krueger of the US and Hongzhi Xu of China in the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Montreal in March (Photo: Minas Panagiotakis via Getty)

US Army General Robert Brown told an Australian Strategic Policy Institute dinner in Canberra this week that, on his last visit to Beijing to meet with Chinese military chiefs, he noticed that:

... something was different ... I realised that China ... used to fear us and respect us. They don’t fear us anymore ... They respect us, but they don’t fear us anymore. And a little bit of fear is a good thing. You have to have that little bit of fear for deterrence to be effective.

Comments such as this may not come as a shock to Interpreter readers, who see daily evidence on this site and elsewhere of China’s growing economic strength and diplomatic assertiveness. Yet when we examine the raw facts of military power, the gap between the US and China remains massive.

The new Lowy Institute Asia Power Index compares Asian countries across eight different measures of power; you, the user, can drill down into each different measure, comparing any two countries you wish. And when you compare the US and Chinese defence spending, you see that the US spends roughly three times as much as China.

Still, the US and China are placed first and second in the military-spending rankings of the Index, as one would expect. We should also expect the Index to record a rapid closing of this gap in future years. The 2016 Australian Defence White Paper forecasts that US and Chinese defence spending levels will be roughly equal by 2035.

Scroll further down the page, and the pattern holds, with the US and China ranked mostly in first and second place (sometimes third). But at the section comparing Defence Networks we see a striking exception. China’s measure is on the left, with the US on the right:

The Index bears out what many analysts have been saying for years: China is a lonely superpower. Compared to the US, it has almost no friends in the region with which it has formed a military alliance or some kind of basing arrangement.

In fact, China ranks eighth behind the US, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, and Malaysia on the Defence Networks measure, defined as “partnerships that act as force multipliers for military capability”.

At this point it is important to point out that the overall rankings of the Asia Power Index – the ones you see first when you land on the home page, and which the media has been busy reporting on – are based on the Lowy Institute’s own assessments. Of course, we have tried to measure the various elements of power as objectively as possible, but the weightings given to each measure in order to arrive at an overall score are necessarily open to judgement.

For instance, you may agree with Professor Hugh White (“China v US: Who needs allies?”) that America’s regional military alliances are not an asset, and that China’s “loneliness” is not a liability in the contest for leadership in the Asia-Pacific. The beauty of the Asia Power Index is that if you don’t like the Lowy Institute’s weightings, you can choose your own, meaning you can reduce the importance of Defence Networks in the overall calculation of rank.

So, go explore, and let us know in the comments what you find.

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