The Lowy Institute’s annual Asia Power Index measured 26 countries or territories across 131 indicators including economics, military might and diplomatic leverage.
For 2021, it found the US remained the most powerful country in the Asia-Pacific region. China was placed second after steadily expanding influence on the index in recent years.
Biden wins back influence
And efforts to mitigate climate change, vaccine donations to poorer countries and overseas development funding also helped the US pull ahead of China.
But the report also warns that relative US military power in the region is waning as China’s armed forces expand.
It also says Asian countries are less economically dependent on the US.
Australia weathering Chinese pressures
Australian exports to China, including wine, barley, coal and seafood, have been hit with punitive measures over the past 18 months.
“Australia has weathered China’s growing power better than most US partners. Despite coming under sustained trade sanctions by its primary trade partner, Australia has improved its resilience in 2021,” the report said.
But on a key marker of defence capability, Australia has lost ground.
But the Australian navy faces a wait of 20 years before it receives the advanced weaponry.
Australia continued to be ranked sixth in the power rankings for Asia, behind the US, China, Japan, India and Russia.
While China’s influence declined for the first time since the index started in 2018, its military might continues to grow.
Chinese military spending is now 50 per cent bigger than India, Japan, Taiwan, and all 10 members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) combined, the index authors said.
The rising superpower has also expanded its nuclear forces and developed advanced weapons that can threaten American and allied bases in the region, as well as the US mainland.
But China is also losing influence because of its high national debt, energy shortages, an ageing population and an inward-looking political system.
Vaccine diplomacy wins influence
The donation of COVID-19 vaccine to countries has become a major instrument of foreign policy, the report said.
Australia’s donation of vaccines to countries in Asia have been generous but the Federal Government’s prolonged international border closures have set it back in diplomatic stakes.
Question marks over the effectiveness of Chinese-made vaccines had blunted China’s soft power ability, the report said.