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Australia is trending down in military capability amid continued warnings from defence minister Peter Dutton of potential war with China.
The Lowy Institute - a Sydney-based think tank - has released its fourth annual Asia Power Index, ranking 26 countries and territories according to the power they wield in the Indo-Pacific region.
Australia overall fared well after the index evaluated international power through 131 indicators across several measures - military capability and defence networks, economic capability and relationships, diplomatic and cultural influence as well as resilience and future resources.
Australia dropped 1.6 points from last year to be 30.8 points overall out of 100 but held its rankings across all eight measures of power in 2021.
It is classed as a "middle power" along with 15 other countries behind top ranked "super powers" United States (82.2pts) and China (74.6pts).
Australia fared best in the defence networks measure, where it placed second overall.
But it is trending down in military capability due to the AUKUS pact where it will acquire US and British technology to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines set to hit the water by 2040.
"A new AUKUS trilateral pact ... promises to create the bedrock for a future fleet of Australian nuclear-propelled submarines that will eventually allow the country to project power at long range into key theatres of the Indo-Pacific," the index report said.
"Nonetheless, Australia is trending down on military capability and has lost 2.7 points in its regional defence networks in 2021.
"The first development highlights the fact that the nuclear-powered boats will not arrive for perhaps two decades, during which time Australia's signature military capabilities will remain limited and its navy reliant on an existing fleet of ageing conventional submarines."
The Indo-Pacific region has been the focus of increased international attention in recent years as worried grow that China's state intention to reclaim Taiwan could trigger conflict between the Asian superpower and the US.
It's a stark reality the Morrison government has been keen to spotlight, with Mr Dutton saying it would be "inconceivable" that Australia's wouldn't join such a conflict.
The Lowy Institute report also noted the risk of war.
"US partners are enhancing their collective deterrence to support a military balance. Yet Asia’s deepening security dilemma presents a significant risk of war," it claimed.
China's power falls for the first time – and that could spell trouble
The US was the only country to improve its overall score this year, with China dropping points for the first time.
Since the advent of the index, the trend has been a rising China as it gains ground on the US which has previously dropped points.
But that has changed this year as China has turned inward through the pandemic, alienated more countries with its aggressive diplomacy, and concern grows over demographic challenges with an ageing population and problems in its bloated real estate economy.
"The country lost ground in half of the Index’s measures of power in 2021 — from diplomatic and cultural influence to economic capability and future resources," the analysis said.
Interestingly, China fared worst when it came to the assessment of its future resources.
After a meteoric economic rise in the past two decades, projections of China's might stalling, or declining, has given pause to some historians.
Political scientist Michael Beckley and historian Hal Brands outlined in a recent essay in Foreign Policy, that China's declining power could be the very thing that precipitates conflict.
In contrast to the well-known Thucydides Trap, the authors laid out the case for "the peaking power trap" showing a long historical record of revisionist states getting nasty when their power peaks and starts to fade.
As China's sees its window of opportunity closing, it could seek to strike when the CCP believes it is in its strongest position, before its chances of success decline further.
That’s where China will be sooner than most think, they wrote.
"[Chinese president] Xi’s regime increasingly faces the sort of strategic encirclement that once drove German and Japanese leaders to desperation."
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