Does China have the most diplomatic pull on the planet?
A new era of Chinese diplomatic dominance is upon us — or at least that’s what several journalists’ interpretations of the Lowy Institute’s 2019 Global Diplomacy Index would have us believe, which has ranked China in the top spot for the first time in the index’s four-year history. Following this news late last month, the Japan Times declared, “In the highly competitive arena of global diplomacy, it is Beijing that now stands atop the podium.” Meanwhile, a CNN headline announced, “China has overtaken U.S. as world’s largest diplomatic power,” and GQ reported that “China just surpassed the United States in diplomatic muscle.” The source of these assertions? The count of China’s embassies and other diplomatic outposts around the world now exceeds all others, including, for the first time, the United States.
Does this mean that China has the most diplomatic pull on the planet? Perhaps, but the picture is more complicated.
While China’s diplomatic representation around the world is certainly impressive at a total count of 276 posts, this is but one measure of a nation’s diplomatic network, and a limited one at that. For starters, despite claims that the Global Diplomacy Index “indicate[s] ‘strengths and weaknesses’ in ‘geopolitical reach,’” the quantity of diplomatic outreach fails to speak to its quality. Indeed, across the globe, China’s bilateral relations appear to be souring. In Africa in particular, accusations of “debt trap diplomacy” and negative business interactions are harming the country’s reputation. And although Beijing continues to succeed in its campaign for states and businesses to sever ties with Taiwan, this does not equate to China gaining allies.
Even with China’s attempts to grow its diplomatic influence through the creation and sponsorship of international organizations that are meant to counter those traditionally backed by the United States, nothing in its alliance structure parallels anything close to U.S. membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (or the power that comes with it). Nor does the prospect of grooming new allies, such as the United States did in the wake of World War II, seem all that likely. As Jessica Chen Weiss wrote earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, “Neither China’s economic nor its political model is well suited for export.”
There are, however, other elements of diplomacy where China appears to outstrip the United States. Looking at similarity in voting patterns within the United Nations General Assembly, for one, the apparent lack of popularity of positions taken by the United States—particularly those related to “development and Israel-related resolutions”—relative to China is clear. (This is less true when looking only at the UN Security Council voting coincidence.) In terms of overseas travel by each nation’s president last year, President Xi Jinping’s 13 states visited also exceeds President Donald Trump’s eight in 2018 (and while this is perhaps more of an indicator of diplomatic effort than power, this personal diplomacy often translates into gains). Regarding visits by other diplomats, researchers at the College of William & Mary note that “China entertains more visiting dignitaries and elites each year than any other country”—a clear sign of Beijing’s international prestige.
What should we take away from all these facts and figures? To put it simply, diplomatic reach is about more than embassies and consulates. Despite the media’s crowning of China as the world’s leading diplomatic power, the evidence for this assertion is mixed. Factor in the relative popularity of the United States with foreign publics—including with several of China’s neighbors, such as South Korea, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines—and Beijing’s diplomatic dominance is further called into question.
Will we soon see the end of the American Century and a global order where China “stands atop the podium” as the world’s leading diplomatic power? Perhaps, particularly given the U.S. State Department’s withering budget, shrinking bench of seasoned diplomats, and damaged reputation. However, China’s expansive network of diplomatic posts alone offers scant evidence of such a power transition. In view of the United States’ considerable advantages in other areas, such as with its alliance structure and relative public appeal, we likely haven’t seen it yet.
Collin Meisel is a Research Associate at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures, where he leads analysis for the Center’s Diplometrics project. Whitney Doran is Project Manager for the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures and a Peace Corps alumna. Caroline Plante leads data collection and vetting efforts for the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures’ research on international governmental organization membership, diplomatic representation, and multilateral treaties. Marianne Hughes leads data collection and vetting efforts for the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures’ research on country and organization leader travel, where her team is completing a catalog of all heads of government and state overseas travel from 1990 through the present day.