Asia Pacific

China bests U.S. with largest global diplomatic network as Japan quietly rises, study finds

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

In the highly competitive arena of global diplomacy, it is Beijing that now stands atop the podium.

China has overtaken the United States and now possesses the largest diplomatic network in the world, while Japan has quietly beefed up its global presence amid Beijing’s rise, a new study showed Wednesday.

The 2019 Global Diplomacy Index, released by Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank, mapped the size and reach of 61 diplomatic networks around the world by embassies, consulates, permanent missions and other diplomatic posts, tracking all Group of 20 countries, all OECD nations and most Asian countries.

In a sign of Beijing’s growing diplomatic prowess and standing on the world stage, the study found that China had surpassed the U.S. network, besting it by three posts for a total of 276.

Japan, meanwhile, saw its diplomatic footprint quietly grow, according to the study.

With a total of 247 posts as of this year, it moved into fourth place, overtaking Russia for the first time in the index.

While Beijing and Washington are neck-and-neck in terms of the number of embassies, China is unmatched in its number of consulates, with 96 globally compared to the United States’ 88, “suggesting its diplomatic expansion is closely linked to its economic interests,” according to the study.

Bonnie Bley, the lead researcher on the project, acknowledged that Beijing had amassed a large global footprint, but said that the development was “a symbolic victory for China.”

“Diplomatic influence, of course, goes beyond the number of diplomatic posts that a country has,” Bley said. “Rather, diplomatic infrastructure is a barometer of a country’s national ambition and its willingness to invest resources in that ambition.”

Faced with a shifting power balance in its neighborhood, Japan added seven new posts since the last survey in 2017, including in strategically important nations like Cambodia, the Philippines, the Seychelles and Vanuatu.

All four have been courted by an increasingly assertive China, something observers say Tokyo is keenly aware of — and striving to counter.

China’s moves, coupled with the diminished U.S. presence, has prompted Japan to reinforce its diplomatic corps, which backed up the conclusion of major milestones last year, including a resuscitated Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership without the U.S. and the ambitious EU-Japan trade agreement — the largest bilateral trade deal in the EU’s history.

“But Tokyo has been subtle in communicating these efforts, coupling broader soft power initiatives such as the recent Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics with its growing diplomatic infrastructure, rather than opting for megaphone diplomacy,” said Bley.

The quiet approach may be due to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not wanting to ruffle any feathers in Beijing as once-chilly ties between the two Asian powers grow warmer.

“It’s possible that Japan is being clever about avoiding unnecessary provocations,” said Bley. “We’ve seen this tactful approach before, for example agreeing to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative on a case-by-case basis. But it’s hard to know Japan’s intentions on the basis of these numbers alone.”

Bley noted that it was telling that the U.S. remains unchallenged as the most important place for countries to send their diplomats: It is home to some 342 embassies and consulates belonging to the 61 countries included in the index. China, with 256, was a distant second.

Still, Bley warned that the U.S. should not be complacent.

The U.S. has seen its diplomatic cache take a hit under the administration of President Donald Trump, with widely reported budget cuts and a hollowing out at the State Department. The White House is also deeply suspicious of international agreements and commitments, and has already pulled Washington from several of them — much to the chagrin of both allies and the international community at large.

“While its decadeslong diplomatic clout is likely to stand the test of time, it is not a given,” Bley said. “Recent U-turns on major multilateral initiatives — among them the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal — which have taken years of delicate maneuvering to put into place, paint the U.S. as an unreliable diplomatic partner.”