Middle powers worried that America’s leadership within the international order will succumb to China ’s strong-arm tactics abroad should take care not to underestimate Washington’s resilience. Though US leadership continues to face considerable competition from China, recent events suggest America might remain the nation most likely to simultaneously check Beijing’s revisionist impulses and help maintain key aspects of the current international system, such as the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and credible multilateral institutions. While America is seen as increasingly weak and irresponsible both domestically and internationally, these perceptions could change. As demonstrated by the world’s mounting interest in “decoupling” from China, Beijing’s efforts to establish a legitimate, parallel set of international norms and institutions are beginning to falter. Other geopolitical heavyweights have also failed to make up for the recent absence of a unifying presence on the world stage. On the other hand, perceptions of an accelerating power transition from the US to China could also be self-perpetuating. Global news headlines are saturated with stories of America’s bungled Covid-19 response and looming Depression-level economic downturn, leaving leaders across Asia and Europe unsure about the country’s future. Cautious leadership now, accentuated by fear of being caught in the rip tides of a potential cold war between the US and China, might mean missing out on a rare opportunity to take advantage of Beijing’s own recent setbacks. This could allow the Communist Party to recover some of the footing it has lost in recent months, and give President Xi Jinping unnecessary latitude to continue exerting his confrontational foreign policy unopposed. If the past offers any lessons for the present, then current concerns about America’s forthcoming decline could be hasty and overwrought. Under the best of circumstances, geopolitical forecasting often leads to predictions that seem obviously wrong or even laughable in hindsight. Rare events like the current global pandemic make the difficult science of predicting the future even more of a challenge. The danger here is that decision-makers will optimise their choices based on predictions about America’s future that might well turn out to be flawed and, in doing so, inadvertently create the very future foreseen. It’s easy to see how current public forecasts about a shrinking US-China power differential might seem ill-construed in hindsight. Among experts and the public alike, there appears to be a tendency to pick apart Washington’s latest missteps and embarrassments in great detail, as well as a corresponding tendency to either glamorise or overestimate Beijing’s strength as an industrial, economic, and military superpower. China battles to control nationalist narrative on social media To be sure, public scepticism of US authority, relative to China’s, is not entirely without merit. Washington’s recent mistakes in the Middle East, its mounting financial policy failures, attendant resource constraints, and consequent growing lack of political willpower are, indeed, all troubling signs for the long-term vitality of US power. Other domestic social ills – such as worsening wealth inequality, a ballooning public health crisis and widening social dividing lines – undermine America’s international image and global standing. Meanwhile, the success of China’s state-led capitalist model since the 1990s, its aggressive use of economic power to win geopolitical influence, and its recent military and technological advances have captivated the imagination with good reason. However, China also has a notorious habit of exaggerating its achievements while attempting to conceal its mistakes and weaknesses through bluster, censorship, and propaganda. The Chinese foreign ministry’s recent behaviour, such the peddling of a baseless conspiracy alleging that the US military was responsible for Covid-19 – part of a new wave of brazen public messaging designed to fuel Chinese nationalism and further muddy international perceptions regarding the US – is particularly suggestive. China accuses US of double standards over Hong Kong protests Such behaviour demonstrates the Communist Party’s recurrent strategy of shifting blame for its domestic and international problems onto its competitors. Whereas other countries might respond defensively when vulnerable, China will aggressively press its advantage. And the Communist Party knows it is vulnerable. The party’s domestic legitimacy, long contingent on its ability to deliver sustained economic growth, is increasingly under question. With the Chinese economy’s annual growth anticipated to sink to nearly half-century lows in 2020, party officials have abandoned their timeworn practice of setting yearly growth targets altogether. In the short-run, the effects of China’s torpid financial markets, skyrocketing unemployment and slumps in manufacturing and consumption may be blunted by aggressive government stimulus. But if the pandemic continues to force radical lockdown measures like it did days before China’s National People’s Congress convened for its annual meeting late last month, Beijing – like so many other governments around the world – will only be able to do so much to stem concerns regarding its basic competency. In this context, the Communist Party’s decision to impose a draconian new security law on Hong Kong delivers yet another signal of its mounting political paranoia. Intended to curb Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrations, which had been partly stalled by the pandemic, the party’s latest move to crack down on the city has only provoked a fresh wave of protests––thus suggesting the potential limits of Beijing’s preference for coercive remedies. Experts have alternated between describing China’s recent military posturing in the disputed South China Sea as an attempt to recycle nationalist sentiments or take advantage of its distracted neighbours. A recent “five-nation face off” with the US and several of its Southeast Asian partners over Malaysia ’s West Capella oil rig operation has provoked concerns about China’s growing assertiveness amid US weakness on the home front. Reports that Beijing may deploy two aircraft carriers to waters near Taiwan for a series of combat readiness exercises in August will inevitably renew fears of an eventual Chinese military operation against America’s Asian allies. But predictions of America’s military retrenchment from the Indo-Pacific are overblown, and could threaten to become self-fulfilling if perpetuated long enough to influence actual decision-making in the region. Nor are such predictions entirely supported by the actual facts of America’s warfighting presence and capabilities, which the recent West Capella stand-off showed remain persistent and credible even with limited partner support during this time of crisis. Indeed, Washington’s attention to its Indo-Pacific allies could become particularly focused in the months ahead. Its reliance on an emerging ‘third way’ among middle powers should not be underestimated, as concerns mount within Washington about what cuts the US$6 trillion response to Covid-19 will force to the US defence budget. The challenges posed by China and Covid-19 require a strong unified response. America cannot lead alone. The US and its Asian partners each have an opportunity to renew their obligations to one another. For Washington’s part, this would mean continuing to work towards its inclusive, partner-driven vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. For Asia, this would mean keeping faith with America’s economic ingenuity, institutional leadership, and commitment to human-centred policies. Charles Crabtree is a senior data scientist at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research and an incoming assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a non-resident fellow at Pacific Forum in Hawaii.