The US remains the top power in the Indo-Pacific, but has suffered the biggest relative fall in its standing in the region over the past year, partly because of the loss of prestige over the mishandling of COVID-19, the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index shows.
Releasing the latest annual results yesterday, the Australia-based foreign policy think tank said while China’s standing had stalled, it remained in second place and was believed to be on track to match the US by the end of this decade.
Australia was one of the few countries to gain in the scores of comprehensive power this year, overtaking South Korea as the region’s sixth-most powerful country, helped by growth in its regional cultural influence and expanding defense cooperation.
Photo: David Chang, EPA-EFE
Taiwan (ranked 14th) and Vietnam (12th) were also on the rise.
“This year we’ve seen an acceleration in power shifts, but driven really more by underperformance than anything else,” project director Herve Lemahieu told the Guardian Australia. “That’s as a direct consequence of the pandemic.”
The competent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by Taiwan, Vietnam and Australia “was a necessary, but not sole condition” for improving their regional standing, the institute report said.
The annual index aims to provide a snapshot of the shifts in influence in the fast-changing Indo-Pacific region, ranking 26 countries and territories by the overall power they wield.
The scores are based on 128 indicators, including three new indicators added this year to track perceptions of the handling of the pandemic, major ecological threats and defense dialogues.
While power shifts “happen only slowly outside of wartime,” the pandemic has triggered “a race to the bottom,” with 18 states in the Indo-Pacific region experiencing significant downward shifts in their relative power, the report said.
US President Donald Trump’s administration’s unilateral instincts was one reason why the US underachieved against its ability to wield broad-based power in Asia, it said.
“America has suffered the largest reputational hit in the region for its domestic and international handling of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the report said. “The result is a powerful reminder that legitimacy and leadership on the world stage start with the capacity of leaders to govern well at home.”
The report said that Taiwan had one of the biggest gains in diplomatic influence (+9.0), but lost the most points in resilience (-0.9). It also improved in cultural influence (+1.1), future resources (+0.8) and economic relationships (+0.4), while trending down in economic capability (-0.9), defense networks (-0.6) and military capability (-0.2).
“Taiwan exerts less influence in the region than expected given its available resources, as indicated by the country’s negative power gap score. While Taiwan is a net underachiever in Asia, its negative power gap improved in 2020,” the report said.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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