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US President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China at Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, in 2017. Under Xi, China has narrowed its power gap with the United States. Photo: Reuters

US power advantage over China declines in wake of coronavirus pandemic: Lowy Institute

  • America still on top of Asia power index, but drops in economic capability and diplomatic influence narrow gap with mainland
  • Report sees US and Japan taking until 2024 and 2027, respectively, to recover to 2019 levels of economic activity
The United States’ handling of Covid-19 has accelerated its declining power advantage over China, according to a new index of power in Asia, with the gap between the superpowers halving since 2018.

While retaining the top spot in the region, the US saw its relative power drop the most of any country in 2020, according to the annual index produced by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.

The US scored 81.6 in the index, a drop of three points from the previous year, with its position declining in all but one of eight measures of power.

The 2020 index, which is in its third year, ranked 26 countries in the region using 128 indicators across eight categories: economic resources and relationships, military capability and defence networks, diplomatic and cultural influence, and resilience and future resources.

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The US registered the sharpest declines in economic relationships, economic capability and diplomatic influence, with its reputation taking a greater hit due to the pandemic than any other country. About 220,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 so far, accounting for more than one-fifth of the official global death toll.

The superpower nonetheless retained the top spot in half of the categories measured: military capability, defence networks, resilience and cultural influence.

Hervé Lemahieu, director of the Asian Power and Diplomacy Programme at the Lowy Institute, said US President Donald Trump’s unilateral policy stances and poor handling of the pandemic had “sharpened the contrasts – and narrowed the power differential – between the United States and China”.

“The result is a powerful reminder that legitimacy and leadership on the world stage start with the capacity of leaders to govern well at home,” Lemahieu said in a report on the index’s findings. “It testifies in equal measure to the consequences of a failure in global leadership.”

Lemahieu said the long-term economic fallout of the pandemic would accelerate the country’s decline relative to China over the next decade.


“Uneven economic recoveries will alter the distribution of power between the leading global players well into the next decade,” he said. “Despite setbacks due to the pandemic, China’s economy has bounced back faster than any other major economy. It is forecast to grow in 2020, while advanced economies such as the United States and Japan will take until 2024 and 2027, respectively, to recover to 2019 levels of economic activity.”

The result is a powerful reminder that legitimacy and leadership on the world stage start with the capacity of leaders to govern well at home
Hervé Lemahieu
China scored 76.1 in this year’s index, holding steady to retain the No. 2 spot from the previous year. The rising superpower saw gains in cultural influence, military capability and economic relationships, but a sharp decline in diplomatic influence. While described as a “net underachiever”, China’s rapid economic recovery from the pandemic leaves it well placed to boost its standing in the region over the coming years, according to the think tank.

“China’s power has stalled and its diplomatic standing diminished,” Lemahieu said. “But in conditions where most countries are less powerful than a year ago, China’s fast economic rebound from Covid-19 will widen the power differentials between itself and the rest of the region.”

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Third-ranked Japan, which saw its score drop 1.5 points, recorded gains in defence networks and resilience, but significant falls in economic relationships, cultural influence and diplomatic influence.

While seen as an overachiever, the East Asian power faces long-term decline, according to the report.


“A recession brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic will be compounded by the structural challenges posed by Japan’s demographic decline adversely impacting productivity,” Lemahieu said. “Japan’s eventual recovery to pre-Covid levels of economic output is on a far distant horizon, in around 2027.”

India ranked fourth, with its score for future resources taking a major hit because of the pandemic’s devastating impact on the economy. India’s economy by 2030 would be 13 per cent smaller than forecast before the pandemic, according to the report, widening the power differential between Asia’s two most populous nations.

“On current trends, India will only reach 40 per cent of China’s economic output by the close of the decade – down from the 50 per cent forecast in the 2019 Asia Power Index,” Lemahieu said. “India needs to be understood on its own terms. Its rise as a superpower, if it happens, will be a multi-decade effort and is unlikely to be linear.”


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Russia rounded out the top five, with large drops in its scores for military capability and diplomatic influence.

Among the top 10, Australia was the only country to see its ranking rise, leapfrogging South Korea into sixth place. The middle power country saw its biggest gains in cultural influence, economic relationships and diplomatic influence. South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia made up the remainder of the top 10.

Apart from Australia, only Vietnam and Taiwan, ranked 12 and 14, respectively, saw a rise in their scores in 2020.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: America’s power advantage over china in decline