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China edges closer to US in key gauge

By KARL WILSON in Sydney | China Daily | Updated: 2020-10-21 09:56

Divergent responses to coronavirus reflected in Asia Power Index shift

China is narrowing a gap with the United States on a range of indicators amid the coronavirus pandemic and the global economic slowdown under an Asia-focused index released this week.

While China's overall standing in the Asia Power Index 2020 has not changed from last year, the US has seen its 10-point lead a year ago slashed to five points with a "reputational hit".

Released on Monday by Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute, the index reveals China's position in the region is growing while that of the United States is weakening.

"China's power in relation to the rest of the region has grown because everyone, with a couple of exceptions, is doing worse," said Herve Lemahieu, Asian power and diplomacy program director at the Lowy Institute.

Governments and societies, almost without exception, now face an onslaught of public health, economic and strategic challenges that few could have imagined a year ago.

The 2020 Asia Power Index reveals a race to the bottom in which countries compete only by degrees of underperformance.

The index ranks countries as far west as Pakistan, as far north as Russia, and as far into the Pacific as Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

The index evaluates power through 128 indicators across eight thematic measures: Military capability and defense networks, economic resources and relationships, diplomatic and cultural influence, and resilience and future resources.

This year's edition covers three years of data and is one of the most definitive analyses of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

Lemahieu said that what was significant this year is that neither of the two countries' scores grew. China's remained unchanged from last year, while the US had fallen in its overall score, "indicating the power gap between the two nations has narrowed".

Lemahieu said the US suffered the biggest "reputational hit in the region" for its domestic and international handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

China's economy is forecast to grow in 2020 despite setbacks caused by the pandemic, while the US and Japan will take until 2024 and 2027, respectively, to recover to 2019 levels of economic activity, according to the index.

Professor James Laurenceson, director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney, said the main point to come out of the index was the decline of the US in its influence and power in the region.

"The data showed China held its ground and the US went backwards," he said.

"What matters are the relatives. In relative terms, this year was good for China and its distance with America was cut in half," Laurenceson said.

"The US' handling of the pandemic can best be described as hopeless."

Handling COVID-19

Professor Jane Golley, director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University in Canberra, said the findings of the 2020 index should not come as any surprise, "especially when you look at the comparative performances of China and the United States".

"Look at the way the US handled the pandemic compared to China, and look at Trump's behavior toward China," she said, referring to US President Donald Trump.

"This (index) should be a wakeup call to the US government that it is losing the battle for influence and power in Asia."

Lemahieu said China's quick rebound from COVID-19 will widen the power differentials between the country and the rest of the region over the next decade.

He said the pandemic's biggest consequence for the region is not the fact that US power is in decline; rather, it is Asia's own "resilience" as it tries to recover economically from the damage done by COVID-19.

"The pandemic has created 78 million new poor in the region. This is a region that is used to growing year-on-year," he said.

"This pandemic has had a bigger economic impact on Asia than the global financial crisis which was predominantly focused on the West."

Lemahieu said he expected most countries in the region will become more inward-looking as a result of the pandemic.

He said the coronavirus has only "accelerated" trends already happening as the US took a more confrontational stance toward China.

"What the pandemic has done has accelerated history rather than radically changed its course."

As for the loss of US influence, he said: "A lot has to do with the unilateral instincts of the Trump administration".

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