Key points:The Lowy Institute’s third annual Asia Power Index saw Australia overtake South KoreaIndia has lost its “major power” status, casting doubt on its ability to rival China for influence in AsiaThe pandemic has wreaked havoc on economies and set many parts of Asia back
That is according to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index for 2020, which ranks 26 nations’ power in the region according to a range of measures — from military capability and defence networks to diplomatic and cultural influence.
The index shows the United States remains the most powerful country in Asia but its power is continuing to decline in the face of Chinese ascendency, as well as a loss of prestige from its chaotic response to the pandemic.
“Handling the pandemic was a necessary but not sole condition for improving a country’s regional standing in Asia,” Herve Lemahieu, Asian power and diplomacy program director at the Lowy Institute, told the ABC.
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“This hasn’t been a high-tech response, it’s been a very rapid and very well organised response,” Guy Thwaites, director of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Oxford University Clinical Research Unit, told the ABC.
“The three countries that we have seen register upticks in their relative power — Vietnam, Australia and Taiwan — did more than just do well with the pandemic.”
Australia surpassed South Korea on the index this year, to be listed as the sixth most powerful country in Asia. It followed the US, China, Japan, India and Russia.
Taiwan’s military honour guard performs during National Day celebrations in the country.(AP: Chiang Ying-ying)Rising China, sluggish India
Taiwan gained the most in terms of its international reputation, which Mr Lemahieu said contrasted with China’s “more belligerent diplomatic attitude this year in terms of the rise of wolf-warrior diplomacy”.
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While Australia has seen its relations with China decline during 2020, it is not alone.
Beijing has found itself in diplomatic stoushes with India over the countries’ Himalayan border, with the UK over its banning of Huawei from the British 5G network, and with Canada over China’s detention of several of its nationals, to name just a few.
China has also clashed with Western powers over increased oppression of dissidents in Hong Kong, the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and Beijing’s ambitious territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Tensions between India and China are at their highest point in decades.(Reuters: Danish Siddiqui)
While China’s power remained unchanged according to the Asia Power Index, India lost its status as a “major power”.
The Lowy Institute said India’s position as a future competitor to China was “far less certain” because of the widespread economic and social damage unleashed by the pandemic.
The country has officially recorded more than 7.4 million coronavirus cases to date and at least 113,000 deaths.
“India has lost the most of any country in the world in relation to its pre-COVID growth trajectory,” Mr Lemahieu said.
A health worker takes a nasal swab sample from a shopkeeper in Gauhati, India.(AP: Anupam Nath)
“The resources for India’s rise are certainly there, but the point we’re making is it’s going to take much longer than many people realise.”
China, by contrast, has seen its economy bounce back following the worst of the crisis there.
And in what the Lowy Institute deems the “new space race” for soft power — responding to the challenge of climate change — China has recently committed to carbon neutrality by 2060.
“China’s rapid recovery will further entrench the country’s economic centrality in its region, while the relative importance of the US economy in Asia will likely decline,” Mr Lemahieu said.
The United States’ reputation has been damaged by its handling of the COVID-19 crisis.(AP: Andy Wong)Australia’s strategic position favourable, but climate poses a threat
Asia’s economy had been projected to be larger than the rest of the world combined by 2020, but coronavirus has slammed the breaks on.
“The long-term economic fallout for [Asia] is pronounced, and that is a huge surprise,” Mr Lemahieu said.
Japan, for example, is expected to take until 2030 to fully recover from the economic consequences of the pandemic.
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When unveiling the Government’s defence strategy in June, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia needed to prepare for a post-coronavirus world that was “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”.
Australia’s increased power on the Lowy index was not only due to its effective handling of the pandemic, but also influence in South-East Asia and the Pacific, where it has directed foreign aid to assist economic recovery.
“Australia carries less ‘great power baggage’ and has demonstrated it can be far nimbler in South-East Asia than its US ally,” Mr Lemahieu said.
Canberra’s military capacity is dwarfed by that of Washington’s but the Lowy Institute has ranked Australia higher than the US in terms of defence diplomacy, citing its ability to maintain defence partnerships with countries such as Japan, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Children gather to get a closer look at an Australian Army helicopter near Dili in Timor Leste.(Supplied: Department of Defence)
Along with New Zealand, Australia’s island nation status and friendly relations with immediate neighbours, see it ranked as having the most favourable strategic geography in Asia.
But on the Lowy indicator of resilience, Australia declined this year due to major ecological threats and greater dependence on refined fuel imports than any other economy in Asia.
“Australia’s economic contraction in the wake of the pandemic is also set to be more pronounced than that of either Taiwan or Vietnam,” Mr Lemahieu said.