In a review of Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index (API) Lt Gen Harinder Singh [Retired] remarks Power is an interesting variable, there is always a tendency to misread or mis-interpret it. However, the API does provide both policymakers and practitioners a comprehensive framework to think or rethink the measures of powers that fruitfully contribute to the growth of the state.
The Lowy Institute recently published its annual edition of the Asia Power Index (API). 26 countries have been covered in terms of their strategic capacity, i.e., resources and influence to shape their external environment. With five years of accumulated data, Lowy’s index claims to be the most comprehensive assessment of the changing international order in Asia.
The project evaluates the relative power of states in Asia under interrelated measures of resources and influence, i.e., what resources countries have and what countries do with their resources.
The first four measures, namely, economic capacity, military capability, resilience and future resources, are vital resources for exercising power. The next four measures include economic relationships, defence networks, diplomatic influence and cultural influence, assess levels of influence, lending the survey its geo-political focus and clarity.
A country’s overall power potential is calculated as a weighted average across the eight measures of power, each of which draws data from three to five distinct sub-measures. These measures and sub-measures attempt to capture the diverse qualities that enable countries to pursue favourable geopolitical outcomes and shape their external environment. In all, there are 30 thematic sub-measures and 133 indicators.
The API also explains the power gap between the countries in the region. Countries can be over-performers or under-performers, irrespective of their overall rankings. Countries with outsized influence relative to their resources have a positive power gap. Japan is one such case. Australia, Singapore and South Korea are other examples. Conversely, those that exert undersized influence reflect a negative power gap. Surprisingly, the US, Russia and India fall under this category.
Evolving Asian Geo-strategic Order
The Asia Power Index concludes that the region is increasingly shaped by intense competition between the two superpowers. While the era of uncontested primacy of the United States in Asia is over, it still maintains a narrow edge in the region. China’s overall power still lags behind the United States and it is less likely to steer ahead of its rival in terms of power, and even if it does in the future, it is unlikely that China will ever be as dominant as the United States. China draws power from its centrality in Asia’s economic system, while the United States draws from its military capability and regional defence networks. Whether this power balance results in stability or not, what is clear is that China is in a recessed strategic position.
The report also argues that hopes of a multipolar regional order in Asia are misplaced as, Japan and India have fallen far behind Beijing and are uneven contributors to the regional balance of power. Rather than multipolarity, the index reveals the emergence of a long tail of middle powers in Asia, and these states are seeking to shape the regional order only cautiously at its margins.
Middle and small powers in the region must also contend with the consequences of the fading US dominance in Asia and the difficult, if not hostile, relations with China.
For Southeast Asian countries, this is likely to result in adoption of hedging strategies, when neither of the two rivals, the United States or China, can establish a clear primacy in the region.
India’s Salience in Asia
Beyond China and the United States, the index observes that Japan and India are the most powerful countries in Asia. However, both countries have suffered setbacks in recent years, which move them out of the category of major powers.
With the exception of slight uptick last year, the API reveals that India is performing less than expected based on its sheer size and resources. While India is doing well in defence networks and diplomatic influence, the other measures of power indicate an average performance.
India’s diplomatic influence has risen with experts rating its interventions highly for its ability to prosecute the country’s national interests. India also scores high in the future resources measure, reflecting its likely greater share of economic, military and demographic weight in years to come.
As a measure of comprehensive power, India stands in the fourth position with an API score of 36.3, behind the United States (80.7), China (72.5) and Japan (37.2).
India’s power compares only half of that of China, thus leaving much work for India’s policymakers to address this gap. For all eight measures of power, India compares anywhere between 0.15 to 0.90 times of China’s measure-wise potential.
As opposed to Pakistan, India is well-placed and leaves its neighbour far behind. Pakistan compares 0.38 times India’s overall power potential and takes 15th position. While, India’s military capability weighs 1.85 times more than that of Pakistan, with regards to the availability of future resources, Pakistan compares only 0.23 times India’s potential. In the remaining six measures, the country is not even among the top ten countries.
However, with China and Pakistan being collusive powers, Indian policymakers might have to draw a more nuanced assessment on the relative power balance between the three countries, rather than a dyadic comparison alone.
From a military perspective, the index provides a few interesting policy-relevant insights.
First, signature military capabilities are important war-fighting and battle-winning instruments for any modern military. These are proficiencies that confer significant tactical and strategic advantages in warfare, including missile technology, unmanned systems, long-range force projection, AI-enabled intelligence networks and defensive or offensive cyber capabilities. Single service thinking and narrow organisational priorities however inhibit the Indian armed forces from fielding these new military technologies and joint warfighting capabilities.
Secondly, regional defence networks, including interest-based defence partnerships and diplomacy, are other policy imperatives. Measured in terms of diversity and depth of defence diplomacy, bi-lateral and multilateral defence engagements, military dialogues and information sharing pacts, joint military training exercises, arms procurements from technology partners and collaboration across defence industries, are vital factors to build favourable power asymmetries in the region. Ironically, strategic considerations have always not driven our initiatives to develop and drive overseas defence networks and technology collaboration.
And thirdly, future defence spending and military capability enhancements over a longer time horizon are a necessity. The API explains this at two levels. One, to plan forecasts of absolute levels of military expenditure till 2030, holding the current ratio of defence spending to GDP constant. And two, the expected gains in military expenditure as a proxy for investments in military capability above the routine replacement levels. As oft debated in India’s strategic and military circles, there is little consistency towards resolving our defence budgetary concerns.
As a tool to measure power, API cannot be perfect, and least of all granular, to capture all the tangible and intangible factors of power in its entirety. As expected, the API drew sharp responses from countries across the globe. The Chinese media was quick to remark that think tanks should not instrumentalize themselves to become a tool for anti-China forces, lest they taint their reputation.
A Western media report argues that the US still retains the edge in terms of military capability, technological sophistication and demographic outlook, and China is unlikely to become a pre-eminent power in Asia in the foreseeable future.
Arguably, the Lowy API would continue to invoke reactions to either justify or question the index and rightly so.
Notwithstanding that, the API survey does provide both policymakers and practitioners a comprehensive framework to think or rethink the measures of power that fruitfully contribute towards the growth of the Indian state.