China has overtaken the United States to have the largest diplomatic network. China has invested massively in its diplomatic infrastructure, which serves as a telling metric of its international ambitions. With 276 posts globally, China has for the first time surpassed the United States’ network by three posts.
In two years, Beijing has grown its network by 13 diplomatic posts, following the opening of seven new missions and the shutdown of two. It’s ascent to the top spot has been rapid. In 2016, China was in third place behind the US and France, and by 2017 it had moved to second place ahead of France.
Top countries have braced for Brexit – and are quicker off the mark than Britain. The UK has been slow off the mark to become the “Global Britain” it promised. Despite Boris Johnson’s 2018 announcement of plans to open three posts in the Pacific, since 2016 it has seen no change in its number of embassies and has closed or downgraded 11 consulates and offices. This represents a 4% fall in diplomatic outreach – the largest drop in the G10.
Quantifying diplomatic power by missions alone, the UK is now 11th out of 61 states - falling out of the top 10 in a leading ranking of diplomatic powers for the first time. This position represents a drop of two places and ranks Britain behind Italy, Spain and Brazil.
So, the UK government’s “Global Britain” strategy, which aims to propel the nation towards a dynamic future outside the EU, has got off to a slow start. Britain’s foreign service was sending fewer diplomats overseas, opting instead to have non-resident diplomats or locally engaged staff. This shows a disconnect between the government’s stated post-Brexit diplomatic ambitions and the resources allocated to them.
By contrast, Ireland boosted its network by eight places – the largest increase in diplomatic posts of any country. With its largest import partner and second largest export partner now out of the European Union, Dublin has called it Ireland’s “Brexit strategy”. The Netherlands too has explicitly linked its diplomatic push to Brexit, adding seven posts in two years and more openings expected by 2021.
India is now hot on the heels of the UK in terms of diplomatic missions. India has expanded its diplomatic footprint, increasing its representations by 13 posts, a 7% increase from 2016. It is ranked 12th with 123 embassies and high commissions and 54 consulates globally.
United States diplomacy has entered a period of limbo.
At the same time, the United States’ diplomatic presence has been marginally eroded since 2017. Without any new openings in recent years, and after closing the doors of its consulate-general in St Petersburg in 2018 amid rancorous relations with the Kremlin, Washington’s total posts are down one post to 273.
With a hollowed-out State Department – only 73% of key positions are filled, according to the Washington Post’s tracker set up for this purpose – and the former Trump administration’s attempts to cut the State Department and USAID budgets by up to 23%, American diplomacy is still looking rudderless if judged by active global outreach.
But the US remains – by a wide margin – the most popular place for countries to maintain embassies and consulates. The US is home to some 342 posts. China, with 256, is a distant second.
Smart Power Conclusion
As we see, diplomatic power is another lever China has pulled successfully to challenge the West’s decision-making consensus. Although, in our League, the legacy power of nations like France flatter to deceive, China’s remarkable rise has upset the post-Cold War order.
Traditionally, global governance has been centred on interstate diplomacy and formal, intergovernmental organizations - like the United Nations, the WTO or the World Bank. Other areas, such as traditional security issues, remain firmly within the remits of central governments.
However, as globalisation has spurred higher levels of economic growth around the world, the economic rise of not just China, but Brazil, India, and other emerging markets has upended the traditional power balance among countries - along with traditional structures of global governance.
Whereas, since 1945, the top UN Security Council states could set the rules for the global economy, today a much broader consensus among nations is required. This is reflected in the increased importance of the G20 (as opposed to the more exclusive G7) as a critical venue for international economic coordination, and in the emergence of greater numbers of institutional investors from emerging markets who now wield global influence, such as the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which began operations in 2016.
However, this wider dispersion of global power has also created new sources of friction and risk, and even in some cases the greater possibility of armed conflict. That is due in part to the fact that China’s diplomatic raison d’etre is to game the decision-making processes that underpin global governance by bringing emerging powers into its orbit of influence. Focussed finance diplomacy in Africa and Asia has afforded China serious clout in international organisations by effectively buying support. The West have not adapted as quickly to channel the influence of the countries involved. So the ways in which emerging powers engage with existing structures of global governance, and the ways that established powers react to these changes, will define world politics in the 21st century.
The widespread resurgence of nationalist and populist politics has raised serious questions about the future viability of global governance. In a number of countries, governments have failed to understand or address the true impact of globalisation on many parts of the population. Even if countries have ultimately benefited from greater economic openness, the lack of sufficient attention being paid to those left behind has weakened the political consensus supporting that openness.
Such movements typically appeal to those people who are particularly worried about threats to their social status due to the actual or feared loss of a job, or to those troubled by immigration and changing cultural mores; in other words, people who feel especially vulnerable to exactly the kinds of changes unleashed by globalisation.
Consequently, unless the West can rediscover unity of purpose in the defence of freedom and democracy, no amount of apparent diplomatic success – either in number of missions of positions of influence – will be capable of countering China’s global influence. A world in which the universality of Western values is pushed back by the particularism of autocratic capitalism has arrived. The retreat of the post war order is now set to continue at pace.