The Ups and Downs of Soft Power in the Asia-Pacific

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Diplomacy

The Ups and Downs of Soft Power in the Asia-Pacific

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted the relative “soft power” standing of leading powers.

The Ups and Downs of Soft Power in the Asia-Pacific

A Captain America figure poses for photos with visitors at Shanghai Disneyland in Shanghai, China.

Credit: Flickr/John Pasden

Brand Finance recently released the second edition of its Global Soft Power Index, an attempt to rank countries according to their international appeal and reputation. The ranking heavily draws upon the ideas of Joseph Nye, an American political scientist who coined the phrase “soft power” in 1990.

The index was released at a virtual summit on February 25, and included hosts like Joseph Nye himself, and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The panelists were asked to share their opinions about the past, present, and future of global soft power dynamics and how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is affecting these developments.

The index ranks 100 countries according to three core evaluative measures – awareness and familiarity, overall influence, and overall reputation – paired with seven “soft power pillars”: business and trade; governance; international relations; culture and heritage; media and communication; education and science; and people and values. In addition, this year’s iteration of the index featured an addition a category assessing nations’ “performance in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic,” an aspect that was unanimously recognized as pivotal at this year’s summit.

Supporting these objective indicators, the index also includes the subjective views of 75,000 respondents from 102 countries, further reinforced by the opinions of 778 experts in disciplines related to soft power.

In last year’s index, the podium was occupied by the United States (which came in first in the index), followed by Germany (second), and the United Kingdom (third). Fast forward one year, and the U.S. has now dropped to fifth position, experiencing one of the major drops in the top ten, while Germany has moved up to first place and the U.K. remains stable in third position. Several European countries also earned top spots, including Switzerland (fifth), France (sixth), and Sweden (ninth), while Canada is fourth and Australia 10th, with minor variations when compared to last year.

But what about Asian powers, such as China, which has had a turbulent year of rivalry and mutual recrimination with the U.S., or Thailand, a country heavily reliant on tourism that has not been able to welcome international guests for more than a year?

China dropped from fifth place in 2020 to eighth in 2021. Japan, instead, climbed from fourth spot to second. South Korea also improved its status, jumping from 14th to 11th. Beyond North East Asia, Singapore and Thailand have remained stable in 20th and 33rd position, respectively, while India dropped several spots to 36th, just ahead of Malaysia (39th) and Indonesia (45th). Vietnam, quite possibly thanks to its effective handling of the pandemic, saw some gains climbed to 47th place in the index. The Philippines is not far behind, but worse than the previous year, at 53rd. The biggest drop was seen by Myanmar, plunging more than 30 spots to 90th position, and this was likely before the military retook power at the start of February.

The index comes with a full report attached, in which the most significant changes and trends are highlighted and debated along with selected single-country analyses.

Germany is described as “the beacon of stability across the continent and the globe,” justifying its top spot. The main causes of the U.S. drop were the troubled elections paired with its poor handling of the pandemic. Conversely, the countries that have managed to gain or retain their spots, such as Japan, are characterized by good governance. The island country “continues to reap the rewards of its strong brands, solid consumer spending, and high levels of business investment.”

China’s drop was explained by its initial botched handling of the pandemic, with lingering doubts over its transparency. In spite of drawbacks, China’s reputation is still “average” and even high in certain areas of the developing world (i.e., Middle East and Africa). The country also gained in the fields of science and education, and business and trade.

When considering future growth potential, Japan is seen as the country that can gain the most soft power, closely followed by China (second) and India (third). Singapore and South Korea are also found in the top ten of promising countries, in fifth and seventh position, respectively. No European country is present, nor is the U.S. This might not necessarily proclaim the beginning of the Asian Century, but it is hard to deny that the balance of global prestige is moving east, or at least southeast, thanks to overachievers such as New Zealand.

Although COVID-19-related uncertainties persist, the countries that first manage to return to “normality” will not only be able to see reputational gains through the achievement per se, but can also choose to assist less capable countries in overcoming their hardship. China’s vaccine diplomacy is a stark example of the direction Beijing has taken. Others may follow, but they had better decide sooner rather than later.

Guest Author

Daniele Carminati

Daniele Carminati is a PhD candidate in Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. His interests revolve around the impact of globalization and the ensuing trends and issues across East and Southeast Asia with a particular focus on soft power dynamics.