World News

US stands tall as Asia's most powerful country despite rising China

Posted May 7, 2018 12:07 a.m. EDT

— The United States is still the most powerful nation in the Asia region in spite of a rising challenge from China, a new ranking by an Australian think tank has found.

The inaugural Asian Power Index, published Tuesday by Sydney's Lowy Institute, ranked 25 nations in the Asia Pacific region and scored them on their level of influence.

Among the factors taken into account by Lowy Institute researchers were each country's economic, military and diplomatic relations as well as their "future trends," or how strong they're likely to be by 2030.

The eight main rankings by which each country is measured are defense networks, military capability, cultural influence, diplomatic influence, economic resources, economic relationships, resilience and future trends.

While the United States comes in at the top spot in 2018, project director Herve Lemahieu said China could overtake it in coming years amid threats of disengagement from the Asia region by the Trump administration.

"If there's a general retrenchment or a loss of confidence in the US and its ability to underline security for its allies in the region, then you will see a weakening in that defense network score," he told CNN.

"If you see that measure starting to dissolve in coming years ... you could see a radical redefinition in the balance of power in Asia."

Here are the three most surprising parts of Tuesday's report.

US and China locked at top

Since opening its economy in the 1980s, China has risen quickly. As of 2011, the Chinese economy is second only to the United States in terms of GDP size. At roughly $7.9 trillion, the Asian giant now accounts for more than a tenth of all global economic activity.

But according to Lemahieu, the United States still has a huge advantage over China in terms of its cultural influence, or "soft power" as it's sometimes known, as well as its military partnerships across Asia.

"Essentially we can describe the current state of affairs in Asia as one of contested US primacy ... China does not have anywhere near the quality or depth of alliances that the US has," he said.

While the United States has close military relationships with Australia, Japan and South Korea, among others, China's only longstanding treaty ally is North Korea. "[Pyongyang] has proved a very unreliable, single-minded country even for China," Lemahieu said.

However, just because the United States has an advantage, Beijing has been working hard to make up ground across the Asia region.

China has pumped hundreds of billions of dollars into ports, rail lines and other projects in Asia through its signature Belt and Road infrastructure program and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. According to the Lowy Institute, it now tops the US on rankings such as economic relationships and diplomatic influence.

"It has become the largest lender and provider of foreign assistance in the region," Lemahieu said.

Russia vying with Japan and India

It's no surprise to see Japan and India battling for third place behind China, the first a venerable regional power with deep diplomatic ties, and the latter a massive economic powerhouse expected to grow dramatically in the coming years.

"For India we see this massive economy that's going to grow further, it has a working age population really going through a kind of demographic revolution," explains Lemahieu.

"You see 169 million people will join India's working age population by 2030 and will mean India becomes bigger in population than China."

Russia, which, like the US, is considered a pan-continental power, comes in a close fourth.

"It has its own pivot to Asia which preexists the US pivot ... During his first term as President, Putin went and renegotiated treaties with North Korea in the early 2000s, with Vietnam, with India and with China so there is a kind of Russian defense network out there in Asia," Lemahieu said.

Russia ranks very highly on a few key indicators according to the Lowy Institute -- diplomatic influence, military capabilities and resilience, a measure of their ability to deter threats to the security of their country.

In addition to the above, Moscow has been more successful in spreading its information networks across Asia. "Its Russia Today and its English-language broadcaster are more popular in Asia than China's equivalent of CGTN," he said.

While both Japan and India rank higher than Russia, they are both closer to the Eurasian power than they are to China.

India ranks low on its defense networks in Asia, while Japan's resilience and military capability are below its middle power neighbors.

But one factor more than anything else determines Russia's high ranking above many other Asian powers. "It's a nuclear power, it's a UN Security Council permanent member, it's that sort of global clout also which also produces an Asia clout," he said.

Singapore rising

One of the most surprising findings of the study was the high-level ranking of Singapore, the city-state on the end of the Malay Peninsula.

It ranked above Malaysia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Pakistan, coming in only just below the well-known middle-power countries of Australia and South Korea.

With a population of just 5.5 million, Singapore's power comes from its high-level economic relationships and defense networks, according to Lemahieu.

"It's at the heart of Asia's trade routes. It is a means of foreign investment so a lot of foreign investment might come to Singapore first before investing in the region," he said.

In addition, Singapore's high-quality military hardware and close defense relationships throughout the region, including many drills with non-allied partners, give it an advantage.

But the failing of a small island state, reliant wholly on trade, means it is highly vulnerable to economic changes such as the threatened trade war between the United States and China. "It's probably the most vulnerable middle power," he said.

One other country's ranking might be surprising to regional leaders. Far at the bottom of the ranking, despite its freshly developed nuclear capabilities and its new diplomatic outreach, is Asia's most infamous rogue state, North Korea.

"Although it does have intercontinental missiles it is a very brittle state and it flatlines in all the other aspects of power," he said.