China’s influence in Asia plummets as Australia gains on Russia
China’s influence in Asia suffered a sharp decline over the past year as the country turned inward during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the United States to cement its status as the most powerful nation in the region.
The Lowy Institute’s latest Asia Power Index, released late on Sunday night, found China registered the largest decline in comprehensive power of any country in the region in 2022 because of its tough coronavirus border closures and lockdown rules.
While most nations recorded declines in influence, the institute found Australia was less affected by the pandemic than any other middle power and is within striking difference of overtaking Russia as the fifth most powerful nation in Asia.
The report examined trends across 133 indicators covering military capability and defence networks, economic capability and relationships, diplomatic and cultural influence, as well as resilience and future resources.
The report found China’s economic capability – a measure of its core economic strength and ability to use the economy to geopolitical advantage – fell to its lowest level since 2018, allowing the US to regain top spot on this measure.
As people-to-people connections between China and other countries dried up due to Beijing’s prolonged COVID-19 travel restrictions, the nation’s economic linkages with other countries also weakened.
“China’s regional advantage has always been its proximity and degree of connection with other countries in Asia,” said Susannah Patton, who led the project for the Lowy Institute.
“But on all the indicators we looked at – flight connections, the flow of tourists, the flow of international students, the flow of business people, the flow of capital – China really suffered during the pandemic.”
However, the report predicts China should be able to quickly bounce back following President Xi Jinping’s decision to end his nation’s self-imposed isolation by abandoning his longstanding “COVID zero” policy. “Over the past couple of years China has really been competing with one hand behind its back,” Patton said.
“China, once it is fully re-opened, will be a much more formidable and potent competitor to the United States in Asia.” Despite its hardline COVID measures, China overtook the US as the most diplomatically influential in Asia and hosted more leaders and foreign ministers than any other country in the region.
Australia remains the sixth most powerful nation in Asia – below the US, China, Japan, India and Russia – but ahead of more populous nations such as South Korea and Indonesia. Australia gained significant ground in diplomatic influence over the past year but recorded a decline in defence networks.
The report found Russia risks “growing irrelevance” in Asia and recorded a steep decline in diplomatic influence and a loss of reputation following the invasion of Ukraine. India, meanwhile, is an “under-achiever, performing less well than would be expected based on its size and available resources”.
The report warns that Japan, long regarded as a “quintessential smart power”, will struggle to maintain influence in the region because of declines in economic capability and the nation’s diplomatic network.