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Forests, trees, and fires
Australia’s Lowy Institute has just released its 2023 Asia Power Index. Like all such exercises, it is presented to have that feel of it being objective and scientific. It is full of numbers and measures, percentages and tables. In the end, it is effectively just a measured set of judgements, and it can be helpful in that regard. Saying that, I am not sure how meaningful it is to judge that the United States has a power score of precisely 80.7 (even decimal points), whereas Japan has a power score of 37.2. To suggest that the US is the most powerful actor in the region, and it has about twice as much capacity to act effectively as Japan, this seems like a reasonable assessment. Put another way, such exercises can be worthwhile in identifying certain features and trends, as well as relative relationships, but the faux precision should not fool us into thinking it is revealing objective truths. These are approximations and judgements.
With that preamble out of the way, back to the index, which ranks the relative power of states in Asia. The report explains:
The Index measures the ability of states to shape and respond to their external environment.
Power is defined by the Index as the capacity of a state to direct or influence the behaviour of other states, non-state actors, and the course of international events.
The key findings presented are:
1. China’s isolation exacted a heavy toll on its standing in 2022 but the country emerges more militarily capable than ever.
2. The United States remains on top of the Asia Power Index due largely to China’s setbacks.
3. The patchy power: India makes an uneven strategic contribution to the regional balance.
4. The clock is ticking on Japan’s “smart power” influence.
5. Countries in the region are still suffering from “long Covid”. Most are less resilient than prior to the pandemic.
6. Southeast Asia is more diplomatically dynamic than ever.
7. Russia, despite its legacy of defence ties with Asia, risks growing irrelevance.
This all roughly matches up. Here is the ranking they came up with:
Reading the report, and looking at the accompanying tables, I was struck by the sense that the authors perhaps ended up missing the forest for the trees. The fifth point (countries being less resilient) deserves more attention.
The report is clear that it is focusing on relative power. It is also useful to step back and look at it in absolute terms, as a different picture emerges: weakening, not strengthening. According to the index, 20 out of the 26 states listed are trending downwards. The exact numbers and measures are not so important, but the rough trajectory captures something important: (almost) everyone is struggling, not doing as well. For all the talk about great powers, rising challengers and so on, perhaps we should be thinking more about weakness and weakening capacity. States struggling to deliver, facing difficulties with their environments (external or internal).
Think about the last few years with COVID-19. Which country had a ‘good’ pandemic? At different stages of the pandemic, there would be different judgements about which countries and regions were ‘winning’ and had the best strategies. Certainly some countries did better than others, and in most cases, different places made different decisions about how to weigh up different risks, had different understandings of relations between individuals and society, and so on. Perhaps, with time, it will become more evident which countries were able to best manage things, but even so, the judgement reached will inevitably be shaped by the frames used. For the most part, it was path dependencies playing out.
Yet it is not just the pandemic where you can find problems. Whether it is debt, economic growth, energy demands, climate realities, digital technologies - each separately or in relation to one another - and then put them along side the many other governance challenges we are collectively faced with, which states are looking well positioned? How many countries are looking ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’? Indeed, this is something often lost in the ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ discussions, as many of the issues are governance issues that all states need to deal with, one way or another.
In a quip attributed to Larry Summers, ‘Let’s be honest here: Europe’s a museum, Japan’s a nursing home and China’s a jail.’ To which could be added, the US is a madhouse… Pick your country and add your jibe of choice. When looking at countries individually, it is easy to identify distinct problems. Stepping back, what you can see are lots of more general challenges, and then specific manifestations of these issues in individual countries.
A world of weakness. A world of weakening powers. These observations are not meant in a catastrophist sense. Rather, it can be useful to shift and adjust perspective, to think in terms of weakness. It matches with us potentially being in the early stages of some type of larger regime change, one currently defined more by entropy, what is being lost, than what is taking shape. What is apparent is that the world appears to be posing more and more questions for which we appear to be separately and collectively struggling to find adequate answers.