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The New Geography of Global Diplomacy

China Advances as the United States Retreats

Protests outside of the Japanese embassy in Beijing, China, August 2012 Jason Lee / Reuters

As China’s rise has become a central force in global politics, analysts and policymakers have tracked its path to potential preeminence on a number of fronts: the size of its economy, the scale and reach of its investment and commercial relationships, the budget and capabilities of its military forces. But as of 2019, China has surpassed the United States in an underappreciated but crucial measure of global influence: the size of its diplomatic network.

For decades, Washington had the largest diplomatic network in the world. Now China does, boasting 276 diplomatic posts—including embassies, consulates, and permanent missions to international organizations. The United States’ network, meanwhile, stands at 273, down one post since 2017.

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 diplomacy. 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.

HOW CHINA WIN-WINS

China’s ascent to the top spot has been rapid. The Lowy Institute’s Global Diplomacy Index tracks diplomatic networks around the world. In 2011, Beijing lagged 23 posts behind Washington. By 2016, it was only eight posts behind, in third place behind the United States and France. In 2017, it climbed to second place, overtaking France, before moving into first place this year. This year’s index puts China in first place ahead of 60 other major diplomatic networks.

Beijing has opened five new embassies in the last two years: in Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Gambia, and São Tomé and Príncipe. This list of countries is not random. Following a persistent campaign of what’s commonly referred to as “checkbook diplomacy,” Beijing has succeeded in picking off a handful of Taiwan’s last remaining diplomatic partners. China is unmatched in its number

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