China Now Has the Most Global Diplomatic Posts, Overtaking U.S.

According to the Lowy Institutes’ 2019 Global Diplomacy Index, China now operates more global diplomatic posts—including embassies and consulates—than any country, including the U.S. which now takes second place. BBC News reports:

According to the Lowy Institute, China overtook the US in 2019, with 276 embassies and other representative offices globally.

That’s three more posts than the US – France, Japan and Russia are in the next spots.

[…] China’s diplomatic rise has been rapid in recent years. In 2016, it was still third behind the US and France with only 267 diplomatic missions. In 2017 it had moved to second spot.

Beijing’s new missions have been popping up especially in countries that it wooed away from ties with Taiwan: Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, the Gambia, and Sao Tome and Principe.

[…] The US has also increased its missions since 2016, but only from 271 to 273. [Source]

The Lowy Institute’s index ranks Taiwan at 32 with 107 posts, only 15 of which are embassies. Read more about Beijing’s steady global lobbying for diplomatic allegiance from countries that formerly officially recognized Taiwan. The most recent switch in September by the Solomon Islands left Taiwan with only 16 remaining diplomatic partners recognizing it as an independent nation.

Coverage of the index from The Guardian’s Ben Doherty relays comments from a Lowy Institute research fellow on the global significance of China’s taking of the lead, and notes that this comes at a time when the U.S. State Department has a quarter of its key posts unfilled:

A Lowy Institute research fellow, Bonnie Bley, said although Beijing had put a significant diplomatic infrastructure in place, it reflected China’s ambition more than its influence.

“The US remains the global hub for diplomatic activity,” she said. “It is – by a wide margin – the most important place for countries to locate their diplomatic posts … China … is a distant second.”

[…] Only 73% of the US state department’s key positions are filled, the index reported. The former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, told Congress this month a “hollowed-out” department was in “crisis”, saying “the policy process is visibly unravelling”. Australia went without a US ambassador for two years.

Bley said staff vacancies nearly three years into Trump’s term were concerning, but that the US’s diplomatic influence, developed over decades, would not be unwound in a single presidential term.

“Instead, president Trump’s abrupt abandonment of multilateral initiatives – the trans Pacific partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement – is a greater threat to enduring US diplomatic influence,” she said. [Source]

At Foreign Affairs, the Lowy Institute’s Bley goes to greater length on how the new report can serve as “a barometer of [China’s] national ambition” and may mark a turning point in the diplomatic competition between Beijing and D.C.:

This shift could mark a turning point in great-power competition. As Beijing becomes more and more willing to deploy its global power, seemingly no longer interested in former leader Deng Xiaoping’s instruction to “hide your strength, bide your time,” it has invested in active and far-reaching . Washington, meanwhile, has seen both a turn inward and a privileging of other tools. Where once the United States enjoyed global diplomatic primacy, the playing field is now leveling.

[…] The United States’ diplomatic presence has been sclerotic since 2017. After closing the doors of its consulate general in St. Petersburg in 2018, amid rancorous relations with the Kremlin, and without any new openings in recent years, Washington reduced its total posts to 273. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department remains hollowed out: even as President Donald Trump approaches the end of a four-year term, only 73 percent of key positions are filled, according to a Washington Post tracker. Add to this the Trump administration’s desire to cut the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets by up to 23 percent, and it is no surprise that U.S. diplomacy looks increasingly rudderless to other governments. Trump’s 11,000 tweets, over half of which attack someone or something, are no substitute for a properly functioning diplomatic network.

[…] Other governments are increasingly setting up posts in second- and third-tier Chinese cities—something to watch closely in coming years. Still, it would take a serious reshuffling of the global diplomatic order for the status quo on this particular metric to change in China’s favor in the near future. […] [Source]

The South China Morning Post’s Linda Lew quotes a Chinese international relations scholar who notes that the recent uptick in new Chinese consulates is related to ’s ambitious and controversial Belt and Road Initiative. The scholar also comments on China’s diplomatic positioning amid the U.S.’ waning proactivity:

Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong said China had close and growing trade and investment ties with many developing countries, especially those taking part in the , increasing the need for consulates.

“One of the consulates’ main goals is to serve the citizens and businesses located in those countries,” Shi said.

[…] “Even though the US has a strong diplomatic base but it is not so proactive any more. It has fewer consulates and fewer foreign service workers,” Shi said.

“For the long term, China is in a more advantageous position.”

But a country’s diplomatic ability and influence did not rest on the number of foreign service postings and the US still held more international diplomatic sway than China, he added. [Source]

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