China Politics & Diplomacy
Report June 16, 2021

IN BRIEF: Fifteen takeaways from our new report measuring US and Chinese global influence

By Jonathan D. Moyer, Collin J. Meisel, Austin S. Matthews, David K. Bohl, and Mathew J. Burrows

There is a lot of discussion these days about China’s growing influence around the world relative to America’s—and how this sprawling contest for clout is shaping the future of geopolitics.
Now we have a way to track and quantify this intensifying competition across time using the Formal Bilateral Influence Capacity (FBIC) Index, a new measure of influence between pairs of states from 1960 through 2020. Spanning economic, political, and security dimensions, the FBIC Index attempts to capture 1) the volume of interactions between pairs of countries and 2) the dependence that one country has on the other.

Why this two-pronged approach? Two countries that interact more frequently and across more dimensions of activity are more likely to have opportunities to exert influence on one another. A country with high levels of dependence on another for its economic activity or security, for example, can be more easily influenced.

We refer to the combination of these factors as “influence capacity.”

We dive into our findings in detail in our new report, China-US competition: Measuring global influence. To introduce our findings, below are fifteen of the study’s key takeaways, visualized.

Chinese influence has been growing rapidly in both size and reach around the world. Since the 1990s, China’s “outward influence capacity”—the influence that a country can exert on the rest of the world, based on the sum of a country’s FBIC scores in all other countries in a given year—has soared, while America’s outward influence capacity has remained largely flat since the 1980s and dipped a bit in recent years.

Over the past decade, China and the United States have swapped leading positions relative to one another in several dozen countries, with the general trend being a stalemate. During the past three decades, however, the average trend has clearly been in China’s favor.

In 1992, China had more influence capacity than the United States in thirty-three countries, while the United States retained an advantage in 160 countries.

By 2020, Chinese influence capacity had surpassed US capacity in sixty-one countries, while the US lead had dropped to 140 countries. Where the United States is still ahead, its lead in influence capacity relative to China has shrunk in nearly all 140 countries since the end of the Cold War.

From the end of the Cold War to the present, Chinese influence has cut into or supplanted Western countries’ sway in every geographic region. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated the rate of these Chinese gains, with new and existing partners increasing their dependence on China.

Here’s who the top influencer was in each country in the world in 1980…

Here’s what the situation looked like in 2000…

And here’s where things stood by 2020.

The United States is the most influential country across the Western Hemisphere.

Chinese influence outweighs US influence across much of Africa and Southeast Asia and has increased in former Soviet states. Chinese influence has also eroded US advantages in South America, Western Europe, and East Asia.

Germany is the top-ranked influencer across much of Europe.

Russia is the top influencer primarily in Central Asia, though its influence capacity also spills over into Belarus, its much smaller and highly dependent neighbor, and into Algeria, the third-largest importer of Russian arms over the past half-decade.

Meanwhile, the influence of previous colonial powers is much more limited, with French influence scattered across North, West, and Southern Africa and the United Kingdom displaying top influence capacity only in Ireland.

Focusing on one region as an example, foreign influence in Southeast Asia has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Once secure and dominant, American influence in the region has entered a long period of decline and stagnation, including losses among traditional allies such as Thailand and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, China has built and maintains a strong and growing presence across all countries in the region, with notable growth in Singapore…

and Indonesia.

To the extent that the United States and the West have been caught off guard by the rise of China, the “game” is not over. The United States still has many opportunities to counterbalance the expansion of Chinese influence through greater bilateral engagements and increased support for regional integration within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Washington also has opportunities to work multilaterally with allies that maintain a strong presence in the region, particularly Japan and South Korea. 


Quantifying the degree of influence one country has over another has proved to be (and will remain) a challenge. Political scientists have tried to measure these concepts by calculating the “hard power” a country has (usually a compilation of different factors such as gross domestic product (GDP), population size, and military spending) and assuming that the country with the larger share of resources is more influential. These measures are quite coarse and difficult to use for regional, bilateral, or network-based analysis.

Recent academic work has highlighted the role of interdependence as a tool of coercion in interstate relations. And while the research presented here does not fully address the complexities of measuring the character of bilateral relationships among states around the world, we believe it furthers our ability to track important yet difficult-to-measure concepts.

Why an index?

The use of power and influence depends on various factors like geography, context, political will, and economic development and priorities. Some of these factors are easy to measure while others are not. Indices are a quantitative tool that are used to measure things that cannot be measured directly, as with the United Nations Human Development Index or the World Bank measure of Governance Effectiveness. Because international influence is a difficult concept to measure directly, especially across space and time in a systematic way, we argue that an index-based approach is a viable path forward for research.

The FBIC Index is a measure of formal influence, in that it is not meant to capture aspects of illicit influence that, while used widely, are particularly difficult to measure. The Index is a measure of capacity, as the actual expression of influence requires understanding context and political will and also cannot be measured directly (a state with high levels of capacity may choose not to use it). This index is operationalized using data that cut across economic, political, and security dimensions of bilateral influence.

The FBIC Index measures the multidimensional, asymmetrical dependence of one country on another. It is the product of two subindices: one measuring the “bandwidth” across a relationship and another measuring the “dependence” of one state on another.

Bandwidth measures the volume of interactions between countries, broken down across political, economic, and security components that flow across borders in a given year. Two countries that interact more frequently and across more dimensions of activity are more likely to have opportunities to exert influence on one another.

Dependence measures how reliant one country is on another for its economic activity or security services by, for example, measuring levels of trade as a share of total trade or as a share of GDP. Countries with high levels of dependence can be more easily manipulated. 






Total goods trade

Total arms transfers

Level of diplomatic representation

Trade agreements

Military alliances

Shared inter-governmental organization membership


Goods trade, percent of total goods trade

Arms import stock, percent of total arms import stock

Goods trade, percent of GDP

Arms import stock, percent of military spending stock

Aid, percent of total aid

Aid, percent of GDP

About the authors

Jonathan D. Moyer is assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and director of the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver.

Collin J. Meisel is the Diplometrics Program lead and research associate at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver.

Austin S. Matthews is a research scientist at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver and an Open Research Laboratory associate at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

David Bohl is the assistant director of analysis at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver.

Mathew J. Burrows serves as director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative and is one of the leading experts on strategic foresight and global trend analysis.

Related Experts: Mathew Burrows

Image: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R), joined by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (R), speaks while facing Yang Jiechi (2nd L), director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and Wang Yi (L), China's state councilor and foreign minister, at the opening session of US-China talks at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, US March 18, 2021. Frederic J. Brown/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo