Among the many escalating and significant challenges facing the United States today, one of the most important is great power competition with China, whose economic, security, diplomatic, and political footprint and presence continue to expand across the globe. China is now the world’s top trading partner, leading trade initiatives to 67% of countries, while the U.S. sits as the top trading partner to only about 30% of countries. Furthermore, the PRC has surpassed the U.S. in its diplomatic footprint, with more embassies, consulates, and missions to multilateral and international organizations, according to the Lowy Institute’s Global Democracy Index.
While the U.S. focuses on strategically outcompeting China, we cannot overlook a crucial aspect of that strategy—diplomacy. Yet, many countries are still waiting for the U.S. just to show up. With several vacancies remaining for U.S. ambassadorships in Egypt, Colombia, Nigeria, and the Solomon Islands, to name a few, China is capitalizing on America’s gaps, filling the void through its Belt and Road Initiative, diplomatic posts, and investment in military bases throughout the world.
Diplomacy isn’t just about competition with China, it’s about protecting our own interests, avoiding the need to send servicemembers to fight overseas, and opening new markets for American businesses. Further, America has the capability to be a better partner, helping other countries prosper and achieve self-reliance. If the U.S. fails to match China’s commitment to building alliances and influence in the world, then instead of competition between the two powers, China will emerge as the dominant diplomatic actor. To continue championing American values and interests across the globe, the U.S. must rise to the challenge.
China has outperformed the United States in diplomacy. China recently increased its budget for diplomatic expenditure by 12.2%—compared to a recent 31% cut ($18.3 billion) proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives. With an $8 billion diplomacy budget, the Chinese government funds diplomatic trips, foreign ministries, embassies and consulates, participation in international organizations, foreign aid, and external propaganda. China currently has 275 diplomatic posts, firmly planting itself in every corner of the globe. China’s increasing diplomatic presence means more countries will begin to depend on the authoritarian system, with increased investment and trade opportunities.
The U.S. stands in stark contrast. Trailing behind China’s diplomatic infrastructure, the U.S. has 269 diplomatic posts across the globe. Spending on U.S. diplomacy has remained relatively flat as China has increased its own spending. Furthermore, America’s slow process to nominate and confirm the most senior positions, especially within foreign affairs agencies, is having an impact. The State Department accounts for one-third of all vacant or pending Senate-confirmed appointments across the federal government. With these vacancies, the U.S. risks diminishing its diplomatic influence globally while China continues to expand its reach.
China’s unconventional diplomacy appeals to much of the developing world. Through the Belt and Road initiative, China has made its mark on the world through infrastructure projects and by offering loans to countries in need of financial assistance. However, Chinese partnerships are not perfect and come at the cost of less transparency and corruption, shoddy infrastructure projects, and debt-trap diplomacy. As such, much of the infrastructure built through the BRI has not lived up to its promised value. In Kenya, for example, a $12 million Chinese-built bridge collapsed before it was completed in 2017, revealing cracks in Chinese partnerships. More to the point, although the pandemic forced a few changes in this practice, Chinese projects have often relied on imported labor rather than utilizing local workers, which benefits China’s economy over that of the host-country. China has also offered loans to countries who have little ability to pay them off, augmenting concerns over debt-trap diplomacy. About 60% of China’s overseas loans are held by countries in financial distress. As of December 2022, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank deemed 22 low-income African countries to either be in debt distress or in high risk of debt distress, and China rarely writes-off or restructures foreign debt, offering little flexibility to loaning countries. These projects have another added drawback of leaving negative environmental impacts, increasing fossil-fueled projects around the globe. China’s diplomatic approach has the primary focus of improving the Chinese economy and businesses, with host-countries paying the price.
The U.S. must be a more willing partner. Countries are ready to engage with the U.S. but we aren’t showing up – and we have the opportunity to change that. Chinese diplomacy consists of securing trade deals and infrastructure projects with countries that have often been neglected by the U.S.. Many countries have turned to China because the U.S. has remained absent, with Beijing offering few positive economic returns. With increased Chinese influence comes the spreading of authoritarian ideals, rampant human rights abuses, and repressive technologies. As countries become more reliant on China because of U.S. absence, they run the risk of adopting China’s authoritarian practices. As the world’s leading democracy with a strong economy, we should be lifting our partners toward self-reliance. While the U.S. has an impressive and expansive network of allies and partners, many gaps remain on the world stage. The U.S. has the opportunity to be a better and willing partner if we can rise to the challenge.
We must expand our diplomatic footprint. To quote Joseph Nye, soft power “is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” America meets this requirement – but it needs to expand its diplomatic reach. By doing so, we will continue to champion democracy, bring developing countries closer to self-reliance, and responsibly compete with the greatest economic and national security threat we face today.