The Lowy Institute 2020 Asia Power Index: Overstating the impact of COVID-19?

Vietnam's response to COVID-19 earned it an increase in power, according to the index. Photo: Truyền Hình Pháp Luật, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lowy Institute annual Asia Power Index offers comprehensive analysis but requires more scrutiny when it comes to gauging how countries stand diplomatically or militarily—or how prepared they are to tackle future challenges.  

By Umair Jamal

The Lowy Institute’s annual Asia Power Index, launched in 2018, ranks the relative power of states in Asia by measuring their economic, political and diplomatic influence. The project records “the existing distribution of power as it stands today, and tracks shifts in the balance of power over time.”

The 2020 index places plenty of weight on Asian states’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and their ability to maintain or improve their regional standing through the crisis. The report also factors in the pandemic’s economic impact as states that were previously doing well economically face a long recovery to reach their pre-COVID-19 positions. 

However, despite the index’s analysis, it is unlikely that the pandemic will affect the balance of power in the Asia Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia. 

What does the Lowy Power index measure?

The Lowy Institute’s 2020 Asia Power Index ranks 26 countries in the Indo-Pacific, including the US, through 128 indicators across eight thematic measures. These include economic capability, military spending, resilience and future resources as well as cultural and diplomatic influence. According to the study, around half of the data points involve original Lowy Institute research, while the remaining are collected from publicly available national and international sources.

The 2020 edition aims to offer a comprehensive assessment of the changing distribution of power in Asia by analyzing three years of data, looking at both resource-based power and influence-based power.

The study reports significant declines in power throughout the region during the pandemic, with 18 countries suffering major falls during COVID-19. By contrast, in 2019, Lowy increased the power ratings for 17 of the index’s 26 countries.

While the US and China are classified as “superpowers” in the region, their relative diplomatic power has diminished from the pandemic, according to the report. The study also downgrades Japan nearly to a “middle power” country, estimating that it will likely take almost a decade for its economy to recover from impacts of COVID-19.

Malaysia’s economy – and their ranking in the index – has taken a big hit following COVID-19. Photo: Hafiz343, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How did Southeast Asian states perform in the index?

The index for Southeast Asian countries does not present a healthy picture. On the ‘Comprehensive Power’ variable, the index indicates that Southeast Asia has done very poorly when it comes to handling the COVID-19 crisis.

From Southeast Asia, only Vietnam has seen its comprehensive power increase, becoming one of three countries to register the “greatest gains” this year on the back of its success in handling the pandemic. On the other hand, Malaysia registered some of the “greatest losses” due to its poor control of COVID-19 and the impact on the country’s economy.

In Southeast Asia, Lowy decreased the power rankings of nearly every country, attributing the drop in large part to the pandemic’s effects.

But the Lowy assessment looks fairly similar across the whole Indo-Pacific. Undoubtedly, COVID-19’s impact has been devastating for countries globally. However, the approach of downgrading or upgrading countries based on their ability to perform in the pandemic is questionable. The mapping of countries’ ability to deal with military, political and diplomatic challenges in the shadow of COVID-19 requires some scrutiny.

Does COVID-19 change the balance of power in the region?

If one follows the Lowy Institute’s model of losses and gains, it might appear that countries that have done well to contain the pandemic have suddenly gained military power, increased their resiliency or gained international leverage vis-à-vis diplomacy. Though Vietnam deserves praise for doing well in dealing with COVID-19, this doesn’t necessarily mean that other nations in the neighborhood are now more vulnerable or chaotic, relative to one another.

It’s also possible that the impact of COVID-19 doesn’t change how states view one another’s diplomatic, political and military powers. If Malaysia is not handling the crisis well, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its diplomatic power has shrunk or that its power in the region has changed.

Another example from outside the region would be Pakistan: the country has made significant gains regarding its handling of the pandemic but remains on the cusp of a civil war, with opposition parties vying to remove the current government and force the military to end its role in domestic politics.

Vietnam’s gains in the overall power index don’t necessarily mean that its diplomatic power in the region will increase. We cannot say, for example, that after confronting the challenge of COVID-19 successfully, Vietnam is now in a position to pull Cambodia and Laos back from China’s orbit of influence.

The Lowy institute’s power index is a rich resource when it comes to insight into Asia Pacific states influence and resources. However, it is not necessarily a true reflection of how countries may stand diplomatically or militarily, or of how prepared they are to tackle any challenges in the future. 

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15