Vietnam Academy Of Social Sciences

Changes in Distribution of Capabilities across Great Powers since 2001


Vu Van Anh1


Abstract: In the decade after the end of the Cold War, there was the US preeminence that no state could challenge its power in the international system. Since 2001, the distribution of capabilities across great powers has dramatically changed. The United States’ relative decline mainly resulted from the rapid growth of newly-emerging economies, especially China and increasingly India. The pace in closing economic development gaps between the newly-emerging powers and the established powers - the United States and its allies, however, has been slowing down. In addition, although the economic factor is important, it cannot comprehensively and precisely reflect national power alone. Therefore, while examining the distribution of capabilities in all dimensions including economic, military, technology, and nonmaterial factors, it is argued in this paper that changes in the distribution of great powers’ capabilities have occurred, but they cannot upset the hierarchy in coming years. 

Keywords: National power, distribution of capabilities, great powers.

Subject classification: International studies


1. Introduction2

Highly-considered concepts in international relations such as world order, international structure, or balance of power are closely related to the distribution of capabilities across nations, mostly great powers. There is a common recognition in various main theories that state actors play a key role and the distribution of states’ capabilities reflects the hierarchy in international relations; the notion of hierarchy is mostly implied in these concepts mentioned above. The study of the distribution of capabilities is, therefore, examining a fundamental issue in international relations. In addition, it also serves as a base for foreign policy-making. That all makes this study both scientifically and practically important. 

Although the increasingly important roles of small and medium powers are promoting the democratisation in international affairs, it cannot be denied that great powers have a greater influence.

Numerous practical and theoretical studies on the distribution of great powers’ capabilities have been carried out. From the 1940s to the 1960s, when the power-asresource approach, which considers national power the capabilities it possesses, became prevalent, realist scholars developed various theories to explain elements of national capabilities. Their works laid the cornerstone for research in national capability-related issues. E. H. Carr’s study of the inter-war period of 1919-1939 published in 1949, Twenty Years Crisis 1919-1939, pointed out that there were three main groups of elements: economic, military, and psychological. According to Hans J. Morgenthau, in his influential work named Politics Among Nations published in 1960, national capabilities were classified into two groups with nine elements. The group of material elements includes geography, natural resources, industrial capacity, population, and military preparedness. The second group, nonmaterial elements, includes national morale, national character, the quality of diplomacy, and the quality of government. Organski introduced another method of classification in his 1968 World Politics. He categorised all elements into natural and social groups. It can be seen that whichever the theory, the four elements - economic, military, technology, and ethos - were always considered the most fundamental and variable factors. Based on them, numerous formulae to measure national capabilities, particularly those of C. German in 1960 and R. Cline in 1975, were introduced in a book by A.J.Tellis [14, p.30].

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the rises of newly-emerging economies in developing Asia has been significantly changing the capability distribution. The gap between China, India and the United States and its Japanese and European allies became narrower. This change has been studied by numerous scholars such as Fareed Zakaria in The Post-American World in 2008Kishore Mahbubani in The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East in 2009,

Joseph S. Nye in The Future of Power in 2011... However, in these works, national capabilities were mentioned as one of the bases for the power transition or the change of the world order. Among those capabilities, the economic strength was over-evaluated and analysed as an important leading factor.  Furthermore, due to the rapid rise of China, these works mainly focused on American and Chinese power but blurred the role of other great powers. In fact, in addition to economic strength, military preparedness is another fundamental factor in having a great deterrent effect and technology is increasingly important in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Additionally, in comparison to the first decade of the 21st century, states have adjusted their policies, affecting the distribution of capabilities. For instance, China has turned its in-width economic development policy to an in-depth one, which has caused a slowdown in its economic growth. The numbers and data provided approximately ten years earlier were also outof-date. Nevertheless, the methodological and theoretical merits of these studies mentioned above remain unchanged. 

This paper presents a comprehensive approach to great powers and national capabilities with numbers and data updated to 2018 in order to argue that changes in the distribution of great powers’ capabilities have occurred, but they cannot upset the hierarchy in coming years. The reasons are proven in the next sections: On the one hand, the pace of closing economic development gaps between the newlyemerging powers (China, Russia, and India) and the established powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan) has been slowing down in comparison to the first decade of the 21st century. On the other hand, from 2001 to 2018, the two Asian “dragons” China and India have shown an increase in their expenditure on resources such as military and technology. However, their achievements in these fields are limited in comparison to the United States, Russia, and other developed nations such as the European nations.

2. Relative economic capabilities

In order to comprehensively assess relative economic capabilities among powers, various dimensions including (i) the size of the economies, (ii) the wealth, (iii) trade, and (iv) investment, should be examined. 

Firstly, the size of the economies.

The Nominal Gross Domestic Product (nominal GDP) - the value of all final goods and services produced within a country in a specific period, which is calculated at market or government official exchange rates - is prevalently used to measure the size of the economy. According to the World Bank statistics given in Table 1, in 2001, the United States was the world largest economy, 8.5 times larger than that of China and 22 times larger than India's economy. The United States, along with its close allies - Japan and the EU, constituted approximately 72% of the world’s GDP. Meanwhile, the total percentage of the GDPs of China, India and Russia - the three major economies of the BRICs - was only 6.3%. Thus, the United States and its allies had a comparative advantage at the beginning of the 21st century.

No more than two decades later, there has been a great change. China’s annual growth rate had been remaining above 10% for the first ten consecutive years before keeping constant at above 6.5% until now. In recent years, the Indian economy has also been growing at a high annual rate of above 7%. Additionally, the Russian economy, under Putin’s presidencies since 2000, has dramatically recovered. The rapid emergence of these economies gradually closes the power gap between these nations and the United States and the other developed economies. As a result, China’s share of the global GDP has risen from 4% in 2001 to nearly 15.2% in 2017 (Table 1) and made it become the world’s second-largest economy. China, India, and Russia together now represent more than one-fifth of the world’s economy. However, this number is smaller than that of the United States alone - the world’s largest economy, accounting for onefourth of the world’s economy.

Following the growth trend in the first decade from 2001 to 2010, and in the recent seven-year period, from 2010 to 2017, it can be seen that the pace of closing the gaps between the newlyemerging economies and the developed economies has been slowing down (Table 1). Furthermore, the United States’ share of the world’s GDP, under the Barack Obama administration, tended to increase. This happened because the limitations in the newly-emerging economies were exposed, showing their unsustainable development paths. For China, these challenges have been generated due to its in-width development policy, the negative effects of the one-child policy on its population, and security threats from separatist movements... For India, the main challenges were poverty, inequality, and its Varna and Caste systems of social classification, preventing itself from developing. Moreover, for Russia, these are challenges related to the West’s sanctions after its annexation of Crimea, creating the 2014 Ukraine crisis. 

Overall, regarding the size of its economy from 2001 to 2017, it can be seen that although the United States and its allies have a comparative advantage, the balance has gradually tilted in favour of the newly emerging economies, especially China. However, the pace of the change is slowing down.

Table 1: Major Countries’ GDPs (Current USD) and Shares of the World’s GDP

                                                                 Units: trillion USD/% of the World’s GDP































































































































Source: Collected from the World Bank’s Data ID of  NY.GDP.MKTP.CD.


Secondly, the wealth.

The indicator of the nominal GDP in USD only reflects the size of the economy but not its real wealth and the people’s living standards. A strong economy is one that has sustainable growth, development, and wealth. When referring to the Gross Domestic Product per person at purchasing power parity (GDP per capita PPP) to make cross-country comparisons of average living standards and economic wellbeing, these indicators of China over the years are still much lower than those of many nations in

 the region and the world. The statistics of GDP per capita (PPP) from 2001 to 2017 [17] have shown that the gaps between the United States or its allies and the three newly-emerging economies are big. In 2017, although the indicators of China and India were respectively five and three times higher than those in 2001, the order in the studied group of great powers has not changed, the two rising powers remain at the lowest ranks.

Furthermore, in the 2017 world’s rankings, the ranks of Russia, China, and India were respectively 51, 74, and 118 while those of the United States, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and France, were 10, 16, 23, 24, and 25 [17]. It can be seen that the living standards in China and India are low while they are both among the world’s top ten largest economies. This fact reflects the uneven growth between urban and rural areas and the big gap between rich and poor in their societies. In general, despite their rapid growth, China and India are still developing countries with unsustainable and uneven growth. 

Thirdly, trade.

Having a strongly developed trade is also an advantage because it can bring economic development to a nation and make a tie-up with other countries and thence a larger sphere of influence. China is proving that it is not only “the world’s factory” but also the world’s major consumer market when it officially passed the United States in trade in the first quarter of 2013. At the beginning of the 21st century, China was not a leading trade partner of any member of the world’s 20 leading industrialised and emerging economies (G-20). But today, China has become the first trade partner of six member states including Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), India, Russia, and South Africa. Among the 180 nations that the United States and China have trade relations with, China is a big trade partner of 124, including some important economic and political allies of the United States. China has taken steady steps to achieve its goal of becoming a leading investor, building infrastructure, providing equipment and credits in the developing world. Most of the Asian, European and Latin American nations are economically dependent on China [1]. Additionally, according to the trend shown in the trade balance of countries from 2001 to 2017 [16], the United States and the United Kingdom usually faced the situation of trade deficits, Japan had a small surplus, while China and Russia made a great leap forward from being in deficits in 2001 to being in big surplus in 2017. Overall, the balance of trade has tilted towards these powers. 

However, the US-led trade war with China escalated with tensions in 2018. Inevitably, this “war” has negatively affected the trade of both sides because China and the United States are each other’s largest trading partner, not counting the European Union (EU) as a whole. Although the trade war has not come to an end, it inevitably brings only relative gains to China and the United States in comparison between them but also takes their absolute gains against the other great powers. 

Fourthly, investment.

Regarding the foreign direct investment (FDI) flows, the United States is the leading country in both in- and outflows.

In 2015, its FDI inflows reached the peak of USD 506.2 billion. In comparison to Russia, India and Japan, the FDI inflows into China have grown rapidly but unsteadily. In 2013 and 2014, China has passed the United States at 288 billion USD, however, in recent years it has decreased. The FDI outflows from China into other countries, by contrast, have increased. In 2014, the great power finally passed Japan to rank as the biggest investor in Asia and the second biggest in the world, following the United States [4]. This fact shows that many countries are now economically dependent on China’s capital. Thus it could expand its economic sphere of influence. 

As an implication of the ongoing trade war between China and the United States, many countries are taking different measures to limit China’s investment. According to the newly released statistics, in the first half of 2018, China invested in Europe nine times more than in North America. However, the three largest economies of Europe - Germany, France, and the United Kingdom - are now increasing scrutiny of Chinese investments. Moreover, in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia - the second-largest recipient of investments from China since 2007 - rejected Chinese bids to buy Australian agribusinesses and electricity grid operators. 

Following the relative economic capabilities of the great powers as analysed above, the great change occurred mainly because the strong development of newlyemerging eastern powers, China, Russia, and India, has closed the gap with the United States, Japan and the other great powers in Europe. The enormous changes can be seen in the size of the economies, trade and investment, which are all sectors giving China a wider sphere of influence in the global economic network. These changes, however, have not reversed the world economic order. Economic growth should come along with sustainable development. The newly-emerging economies are facing challenges arising from their inwidth development policies, in fact, entering the second decade of the 21st century, the pace of tilting the balance of economic power has been slowing down. Moreover, the US-China trade war breaking out in 2018 is inevitably affecting the two sides’ growth in trade and investment, which will lead to a decline in relation to the other great powers. 

3. Relative military capabilities

It is not an easy task to have accurate assessments on national military capabilities because statistics released in various official sources are quite different, not to mention that much confidential military data is inaccessible. Furthermore, the national military capabilities depend on not only its military expenditure, the numbers of military personnel, weapons and equipment, but also the weapons’ damage, the strategy and tactics, and the soldiers’ skills and bravery. 

Firstly, military expenditure.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States remains the world’s biggest military spender, and its share of the world’s spending has even increased since 2001 [11]. However, the great change lies in the other great powers. Russia, India, and particularly China have seen dramatic increases in their military expenditures, where as the United States’ close allies, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and

Japan, have kept their expenditures constant or even cut their military budgets. Indeed, in 2001, China spent  USD 27.875 billion on its military, which is equivalent to onetenth of the United States and accounts for 3% of the world’s spending. In the three years from 2010 to 2012, China increased its spending by more than 10% per year. In

2016, China’s military spending was  USD 215.176 billion, more than the total spending of the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan, closing the gap with the United States (a little over one third of the United States’ spending) and helping China become the world’s second-biggest military spender [11]. These military expenditures reflect nations’ investments on military and their military power potential.

Secondly, military personnel.

China and India so far have always been the two countries having the highest numbers in manpower partly because they are the two most populous countries in the world. From 2001 to 2016 (newly released statistics), while the number of personnel in India’s military forces is increasing to nearly three million people, that of China and the United States is significantly decreasing. Its one-child policy controlling the population can explain this decrease in China. Despite the decrease, the number of China’s military personnel is 2.7 million people (including its reserve forces), more than twice as many as the United States with 1.3 million people. Within the military personnel of 2.7 million people, 1.6 million are serving in the China People’s Liberation Army, making China become the largest standing army in the world [5]. 

However, the quantity cannot comprehensively show the power of an armed force, the well-trained level of soldiers can partly reflect its quality. Combatant capabilities and tactics can minimise the quantitative weakness and help win the conflict. According to the top ten’s ranking of the most well-trained special forces based on the severe level of their training and their abilities to accomplish difficult missions, none of China’s forces is in the top 20 leading forces while the Indian special forces (MARCOS) are the 11th. The number one fighting force in this ranking is the Special Air Service, the special forces of the British

Army, followed by the United States Navy Sea, Air, and Land Teams (Navy SEALs) and Russian Spetsnaz [15]. 

Thirdly, weapons and military equipment.

Since 2001, China and India have been the world’s two biggest arms importers [13]. This fact, on the one hand, reflects their low military technology and dependence on other weapon suppliers, and on the other hand, shows the potentially huge arsenals the two countries possess. 

Regarding the number of military equipment and weapons, as shown in Table 2, it can be seen that China is the leading country in naval weapons and equipment, the United States has the biggest advantage in air forces, and Russia in its land forces. The difference between China’s naval weaponry and the others’ is not much, whereas the difference in air and land weaponry between the United States, Russia, and China as well as India is quite big. 

Furthermore, following the structure of weapons and military equipment in naval forces, China has the highest number of total naval ships, but there are few heavy vehicles such as aircraft carriers and destroyers, but many smaller ships such as frigates and corvettes. In contrast, the United States’ total naval units are only half of China, but the number of heavy vehicles is much higher, which means that China’s naval forces can be strong in quantity but not in quality. In fact, the number of modern and advanced naval weaponry is still far behind the United States, similarly to air and land forces.

Table 2: Number of Military Equipment and Vehicles in Great Powers’ Military Forces (2016)










Total naval ships Aircraft carriers

437 20

314 1

780 2

214 2

76 1

129 4



































Total aircrafts Fighter aircrafts

12.304 457

4.441 751

4.182 1.150

2.216 323



1.654 154


Multirole aircrafts








Attack aircrafts

















Tanks AFVs














Total artillery
















Rocket artillery







Source:, collected from,, and other governments’ official websites. 


Fourthly, nuclear weapons.

China and India are considered the third and fourth military great powers when nuclear weapons are not included. Nuclear

weapons can change the balance of military capabilities because of its powerful damage. This is a factor to be considered.

As reported by SIPRI, in 2001, Russia and the United States together possessed 93% of the total of 17,150 nuclear warheads in the world, and China, France, the United Kingdom and India had 400, 348, 200 and 35 nuclear warheads, respectively [7]. Although countries are making efforts to disarm nuclear weapons, according to the latest statistics of 2017, Russia, the military power with the biggest nuclear weapon stockpiles, owned 7,000 nuclear warheads including 1,910 deployed warheads, followed by the United States ranked the second with 6,800 nuclear warheads including 1,800 deployed. The number of nuclear warheads of China decreased to 270. Only India has increased its nuclear warheads to 130 [8].

It can be seen in the balance of military capabilities in recent two decades that Russia and the United States so far have always been the world’s two leading military powers. China and India are making efforts to develop their hard power including military capabilities. However, their forces are seen to be strong in numbers but weak in combat skills and military technology. 

4. Relative science and technology capabilities

Science and technology are the sources of economic and military development. After the Cold War, the United States, Japan and the EU which mastered advanced technology, achieved a stable development in economics as well as owned advanced armed forces while other countries like China and India were still backward and their development abilities were still hindered.

Firstly, research and development (R&D) expenditure. R&D expenditure shows a nation’s investment in science and technology improvement. Since 2001, there has been a trend that all nations have been focusing on investing in science and technology. China has the highest spending in this field, which surpassed the spending of the EU with 28 countries as a whole [9]. Although there are no specific statistics in India, it is still possible to see that the potential of science and technology of the country is relatively large. India has become one of the most attractive destinations for processing techniques, and it is estimated that there will be a huge source of labour working in the R&D field.

Secondly, the number of scientists.

The number of scientists per 1,000 workers also reflects the number of human resources in science and technology research. According to the data from 2013, Japan (10.2 scientists per 1,000 workers) and South Korea (12.8 scientist per 1,000 workers) stood at the top 10 countries in the world, followed by France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and China as the 10th, the 16th, the 17th, the 20th, and the 36th, respectively [12]. Especially, China and Russia were the two countries facing the serious situation of “brain drain” to the United States and the EU. From 2001 to now, when China has adopted various policies to attract and create favourable conditions for scientists, the proportion of scientists returning to their homeland in comparison to the proportion of people staying in the host country has been increasing. This is a good sign for China's science and technology. On the contrary, with many efforts since Putin took office for the first time in 2000 until the middle of Medvedev's term, Russia's brain drain dropped significantly, but it then has increased in recent years [3].

Thirdly, the number of patents and Nobel prizes.

The number of patents and Nobel prizes reflects the quality of researches in science and technology. Until 2015, the five countries with the highest number of Nobel Prizes in the world were all Western countries led by the United States with 336 Nobel Prizes at the first place, followed by the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland. Russia and Japan ranked the 6th and the 7th on the list [6]. Regarding the number of patents for science and technology, the United States, Japan and France are the top three countries with the number of patents accounting for 40%, 27% and 11% of the total inventions. China is recognised as an active inventor, but it is not on the list, possibly because the country focused on its domestic market first, so it does not pay enough attention to global and pioneering factors [10].

Therefore, in this period, although China has strongly invested in science and technology, its achievements are still limited in comparison to the Western developed countries as well as Asian countries like Japan and South Korea. However, it cannot be denied that although the United States, Japan and the EU are still regarded as the leading powers in science and technology today, they no longer dominate the technology ground as they did during the Cold War and the first decade of the 21st century because of the rises of potential eastern powers. 

5. Relative nonmaterial capabilities

Firstly, ideological values.

After the end of the Cold War, ideological values including liberty, democracy, and human rights were strongly promoted along with intervention policies of the United States and the West. Since the end of the Cold War, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a decline in the attractiveness of the socialist ideology while there is no ideology having the ability to become the counter balance with American and Western ideological values, especially in the last decade of the 20th century.

Entering the early years of the 21st century, the security implications of intervention policies implemented by the United States and the West caused a wave of anti-Americanism and made the public opinion suspicious of their values of freedom, democracy and human rights. Above all, the market economy has developed to the phase in which it exposed the dark sides such as inequality and the increasing social classification. On the other hand, the miraculous growth of China's economy and Russia's recovery in the early 21st century have attracted the world's attention to other successful development models than those of the United States and the West. This was also an opportunity for China to diffuse its ideological values. It has been more than four decades since Deng Xiaoping initiated his reform and open policy, and launched a development model that Joshua Cooper Ramos called the "Beijing Consensus" - a development model that is a counterweight of the Washington Consensus. In recent years, this model has been considered. Although these two development models are still controversial, it is undeniable that in the 21st century, there is another influential theoretical model of development besides the Washington Consensus which was prevalent since the early 1990s.

Moreover, Xi Jinping's administration has recently developed the concepts of "peaceful rise", "harmonious world" and "win-win solutions"; and, especially, disseminated the ideology of Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism. The investment in expanding the Confucius Institute system around the world has shown these policies. Until October 2014, there were 471 Confucius Institutes located at the universities, 730 Confucius classrooms at the high schools and elementary schools in 125 countries and territories [2, p.118]. This shows China is focusing on disseminating its ideological values. However, although it is named Confucius institute, Han Chinese language and Chinese culture are taught instead of Confucius ideology. Therefore, China's ideological values have not been much developed.

It can be seen that the strong economic development brought advantages to China in disseminating its ideological values, and in the first two decades of the 21st century, the development model and ideological values on democracy, human rights of the West have been no longer as persuasive or popular as in the 1990s. Besides, there have been other emerging ideological values - the Eastern ones. This was a big change in this period. However, it does not mean that American and Western ideological values are completely replaced. These values are still being promoted and still have more advantages because they had a long time of development, but it cannot be denied that they are being challenged and competed by the other values.

Secondly, cultural products.

Although the United States is said to be a mixed culture because it is a multi-ethnic nation, the level of popularity of American culture and its image to the world is high. American English is widely used in the world and popular at all international conferences and events as a common language. Besides, due to the most advanced technology, American entertainment industries like Hollywood, Walt Disney; fast food brands like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola; or famous technology companies like Apple and Microsoft are still trending all over the world.

However, the East with a long-standing civilisation has gradually reaffirmed its influence through great waves of various cultures in the 21st century. The Hallyu wave of South Korea has made European and American music (pop music) share the stage with Korean music (K-pop).

Hollywood also has to accept that audiences in the world are embracing films of Bollywood. Additionally, the community of Japanese comics and culture lovers in the society of each nation is growing with numerous activities.

It can be said that great powers now consider soft power as an effective way to exercise their power in the new era. Although the United States is constantly improving its soft power, the attractiveness of Eastern ideas and cultures cannot be denied. The United States is facing challenges in many aspects.

6. Conclusion

In conclusion, the distribution of capabilities has been changing during the 17 years since 2001. The United States and its allies have been keeping a constant growth, whereas the newly-emerging powers, China, Russia, and India, have rapidly and strongly grown, mostly in the economic field. This makes the power gap between the lonely superpower of the 1990s, the United States and these rising powers narrower. This fact, however, does not mean that the world is approaching the point at which the power belongs to these rising eastern powers. 

Indeed, regarding the elements of national capabilities, the advantage of these rising powers is in their economic growth; however, these in-width developments have shown their limitations, requiring a policy adjustment towards more sustainable development. These adjustments, along with difficulties facing the developing economies, are inevitably slowing the pace of growth and also the pace of the change in the distribution of economic capabilities. Regarding military capabilities, the preeminence of the United States and Russia cannot be denied because the two great military powers possess not only big arsenals of nuclear warheads, advanced weaponry and military equipment but also some of the most well-trained forces. China and India are respectively the world’s third and fourth most powerful militaries, but their advantages are in their numbers of military personnel. Science and technology capabilities are a source of power in the new era, which countries are strongly developing. Instead of an arms race as in the previous period, the world today is witnessing a technology race which is tense too. China’s science and technology are considered to be less pioneering and creative. Thus, they still depend on other advanced countries’ science and technology. However, the considerable investments by China in this field reflect its potentials for having great science and technology capabilities in the future. While it takes a long time for a nation to comprehensively and sustainably develop its capabilities for hard power, including economic, military and technology, diffusing idealogical values take more time. The reason is that it takes generations for ideological values to prove their attractiveness, penetrate and adapt to diverse cultures. The Western values and norms have their position and advantage despite newly-arising challenges.

Overall, in order to develop national capabilities more comprehensively, the newlyemerging powers have a long way ahead.




* University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi.

The paper was published in Vietnamese in: Thông tin Khoa học xã hội, số 6 (426), 2018. Translated by Vu Van Anh, edited by Etienne Mahler. 

It is a product of the KX.01.12/16-20 project within the framework of the State-level key science and technology programme in the 2016-2020 period of the Ministry of Science and Technology of Vietnam.



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