Australia’s top think tank, the Lowy Institute, released its annual Asia Power Index on Monday, and Taiwan was one of just three nations to have gained “comprehensive power” this year amid the economic and political ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The index project, launched in 2018 as a research tool for policymakers and academics, evaluates 25 nations — 26 this year — on key metrics, such as military capability, diplomatic and cultural influence, and resources. This year, three more metrics were added, including ecological threats and handling of the pandemic.
While Taiwan has been ranked 14th since 2018, its overall score this year improved 5 percent thanks to a 9 point improvement in diplomatic influence, a 1.1 point rise in cultural influence, and small increases in future resources and economic relationships, even while it lost 0.9 points each in resilience and economic capability, and 0.2 points in military capability.
However, its overall power standing has changed considerably from 2018, when it was labeled a “misfit middle power,” along with North Korea and Russia, and from last year, when it was the only middle power to show a significant downward shift in overall power, which was attributed to its geopolitical significance and “its position as a political outsider.”
What a difference a year — and a global crisis — can make.
Taiwan topped the index’s chart for international reputation and effective handling of the pandemic, just edging out New Zealand.
The institute said that competent handling of the pandemic was a key factor, but not the only one that helped Taiwan, Vietnam and Australia to improve their regional standing, as others with successful responses to the pandemic, such as New Zealand and South Korea, saw declines in their power.
Yet it included a barbed reminder that “misfit middle powers” such as Taiwan “deliver inconsistent performances across the influence measures” and that “Taiwan exerts less influence in the region than expected, given its available resources.”
So what can the government and the public take away from Taiwan’s pluses and minuses this year?
First, the nation’s economic capability, at eighth place, remains key to its global standing, but the 0.9 point decline should be cause for concern and an impetus to redouble efforts to build or strengthen trading ties with ASEAN members, India, Australia and other nations.
Second, while Taiwan placed 19th in diplomatic influence, it did see a 9 point improvement this year, probably because it ranked 10th in foreign policy bureaucracy thanks to its efficacy, with the institute’s report citing the benefits of the nation’s “substantial network of unofficial representative offices abroad.”
Third, amid the US-China struggle for primacy in the region, the future will be determined by asymmetric multipolarity, meaning that the interests of middle powers, including Taiwan, will become more important, and that nations on the margins can still take part in shaping the regional order.
Fourth — but perhaps most importantly — this year’s results, as the institute’s report says, are a “powerful reminder that legitimacy and leadership on the world stage start with the capacity of leaders to govern well at home.”
Taiwan, despite its exclusion from the WHO, has become a key influencer in the battle to contain the coronavirus, thanks to the leadership shown in the Presidential Office, the Cabinet, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and elsewhere.
However, essential to that leadership is the legitimacy that this nation’s democracy confers, domestically and internationally, which is something that the Chinese Communist Party, with its petulant bullying attempts to silence Beijing’s critics and cower Taiwan, will never understand.
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