While many have speculated that US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy could give China room to grow its global influence, a new report claims it has found objective proof.

According to an annual global ranking of soft power issued Tuesday, China’s influence has risen for the second year in a row, up to 25th worldwide from 28th last year, while the US dropped from first place to third, sliding for the first time since the ranking was introduced in 2015.

However, Uncle Sam still holds much more soft power than most countries, including China – third in the world after France and the United Kingdom.

The annual report completed in June, known as the Soft Power 30 Index, is conducted by researchers from Portland, a strategic communications consultancy based in London, and the University of Southern California Centre on Public Diplomacy. They measured the influence and reputation of 61 nations using objective data across six categories – government, culture, education, global engagement, enterprise and digital – and international polling from 25 countries representing every major region of the world.

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“The story of this year’s Soft Power 30 index and the wider report is the shifting dynamic between the US and China,” said Jonathan McClory, an analyst at Portland and the study’s author. “Where we see the traditional role of US global leadership in retreat, China is clearly stepping in to drive the global agenda forward.”

In contrast to Trump’s more isolationist administration, which withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has threatened trade wars and attempted to restrict immigration, China has led the broad establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral financial institution that so far has attracted 70 member states stretching from East Asia to Western Europe.

The Middle Kingdom has also won global praises for its efforts to combat global climate change, even as Trump pulled the US out of Paris climate agreement to “put American workers first”.

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“While ‘America First’ has translated into less global leadership for the US, China has emerged an unlikely champion for globalisation and environmentalism,” McClory said.

The result: China has improved in the polling data, suggesting a more favourable international view of China’s role on the world stage. In contrast, the report notes a decreasing American performance; the US score fell nearly 10 per cent from 2016 to 2017.

China has made significant investments in developing its soft power, with the opening of more than 500 Confucius Institutes across the world and extensive international branding campaigns, the report said. The researchers also attributed the rise of Chinese soft power to its cultural appeal – the country is now tied with Italy for the largest number of Unesco World Heritage Sites.

But some soft power experts question the report’s broad conclusions. Yuen-yuen Ang, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, called the index’s understanding of soft power “superficial”.

“Soft power is not simply likeability or a nice image,” Ang said. “Soft power means being able to impose your standards upon everyone else as the global best standards. China is still very far from exercising such soft power,” she said.