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China has more diplomatic posts globally than the US, and grew its lead in 2020

President of China Xi Jinping. (Kremlin/Released)
March 17, 2021

In the global race for diplomatic and economic influence, China continues to try to outdo the United States. A big part of that influence is simply having a physical presence around the world — and China is at the top.

In 2019, China surpassed the United States as the country with the greatest number of diplomatic posts around the world, with 276 to America’s 273. As of September 2020, the U.S. State Department had 276 embassies, consulates, missions, and offices in 195 different countries, while China continued to grow its lead and currently lists 282 embassies, consulates, and missions around the world.

In an interview with American Military News, Keith Krach, former Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, and former CEO of DocuSign, said the number of Chinese diplomatic outposts is a factor, “Because this epic battle between authoritarianism and freedom is going on in every single country and on many fronts, so if you don’t show, you don’t win.”

In 2020, the diplomatic race between the U.S. and China saw President Donald Trump’s administration order one of China’s consulates in Houston, Texas, closed, while China retaliated by ordering the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu closed. Despite the tit-for-tat consulate closures, China still ended the year with the most diplomatic outposts.

The expansion of China’s diplomatic reach continues a trend that Len Khodorkovsky, a former top State Department official under Trump, told American Military News has been going on for decades. Khodorkovsky served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Chief Marketing Officer for Economic Diplomacy and Senior Advisor for Public Affairs for the Trump administration.

Khodorkovsky said the U.S. has not been watching China carefully enough, allowing it to receive preferential treatment at the World Trade Organization, and throughout U.S. and international markets.

“We’ve given them about a 40-year head start in taking a much more combative and aggressive approach toward the relationship between our two countries,” Khodorkovsky said.

Krach and Khodorkovsky both saw the effects of China’s massive diplomatic expansion up close, and worked on the Trump administration’s counter to that Chinese trend.

Krach, who was unanimously confirmed to his State Department position, became the mastermind behind the “Clean Network,” a campaign to get dozens of countries and telecommunications companies to avoid partnering with Chinese telecoms companies like Huawei, and counter China’s overall masterplan to control 5G communications networks.

As undersecretary, Krach said he observed a clear difference between U.S. and Chinese diplomacy in action. “There’s two factors here: one is quantity and the other is quality,” he said.

In terms of quantity, Krach said China’s greater number of diplomatic outposts works to its advantage, however, Krach said a common trend he noticed among other nations was a distrust of China. When he would talk to his counterparts from other nations and ask them about their China relations, many would say “They’re important, they’re our number one or number two trade partner . . . but we don’t trust them.”

Krach said China’s diplomatic doctrine is to “seduce with money and reinforce with intimidation, retaliation and retribution.”

While enjoying relaxed trade standards, China has been able to expand its diplomatic outreach through enormous economic development strategies such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Since 2013, China has developed the Belt and Road Initiative as a central component of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and leader Xi Jinping’s foreign policy strategy.

The initiative entails China loaning money to developing nations to support their infrastructure projects. However, critics of China’s diplomacy method have accused China of operating a debt trap for nations that can’t sustain payments on their loans from China, and in some cases, have had to sign over strategic assets to China to pay off their debt. In 2017, Sri Lanka signed a 99-year lease of its Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port to China to pay down debt to China.

In an October interview, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus called China’s Belt and Road Initiative, “China’s debt diplomacy to the world.” Krach and Khodorkovsky both recalled a diplomat from one Southeast Asian country who described the initiative as, “One belt, one-way toll road to Beijing.”

Another concerning Chinese diplomacy method came about during the outset of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. As the pandemic spread, China appeared to offer key medical supplies, like masks and protective gowns, in exchange for positive press. The method came to be known as “Mask Diplomacy.”

In an interview with the New York Times in May, U.S. ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher alleged Chinese pressure on Polish President Andrzej Duda to call China for coronavirus supplies.

“Poland wasn’t going to get this stuff unless the phone call was made, so they could use that phone call” for propaganda, Mossbacher told the Times.

In a February incident, a Chinese diplomat even emailed a Wisconsin Republican state lawmaker, State Sen. Roger Roth, requesting Roth pass a state resolution that praised China’s coronavirus response.

Khodorkovsky said some countries were even seeing shipments of medical equipment conditioned on them agreeing to take contracts with Chinese companies like Huawei.

While global markets contracted under the spread of COVID-19, China was one of the only major world economies to grow in 2020. During that time, China expanded its diplomatic reach, adding another six diplomatic outposts. While China used stockpiles of medical supplies to its advantage, Khodorkovsky said the mask diplomacy strategy became a wake-up call for countries around the world.

China’s handling of the coronavirus added to the sense of distrust Krach observed among many nations towards China, but he said there were also problems with the diplomatic message the U.S. was sending.

One of the problems for the U.S. diplomatic message around the world has been focusing on China-related issues solely in terms of their benefit to the U.S. For example, when it came to warning other countries about the threat Chinese telecom company Huawei posed to their citizens’ private data, Krach said “it involved a lot of banging on the table and saying, ‘Don’t buy Huawei.’”

“Nobody likes to be told what to do,” Krach added. Then, he said the strategy shifted. “Why don’t we treat the countries and all these [telecomms companies] as a customer, and the customer’s always right, and let’s focus on a real value proposition that benefits them just like you were doing a deal in the business world.”

Krach envisioned that “value proposition” — a term often used in the business world — as a way to build multi-national support in opposition to China. The value proposition became central to his leadership in advancing the Clean Network. Krach said he would customize the Clean Network value proposition to each country he visited, often using quotes from local business leaders, using their own words to describe the distrust they felt towards China and the comparative value of working with the U.S.

Getting U.S. telecommunications businesses on board with the Clean Network also played a critical role in winning support around the world. Krach said the commitment by hi-tech “Clean Companies” to only expand their operations in countries with a trusted 5G infrastructure convinced many countries to commit to the Clean Network because there’s “always an intense desire for US private sector investment” and those countries did not want to risk losing out on that investment opportunity.

Khodorkovsky noted one outcome of the Clean Network was that Huawei, which began 2020 with contracts with 91 different countries to build their 5G networks, ended the year with only “about a dozen” contracts.

“In a year, what you saw as China starting out in a position of strength and dominance, has basically shrunk to the point where they’re on their heels and in retreat because the world has basically pushed back,” Khodorkovsky said. “. . . All of these countries and companies have decided they can’t trust Chinese equipment and so, many of them at great cost, have decided to rip out their current Chinese equipment.”

In just 9 months, nearly 60 countries, representing two-thirds of the world’s GDP and over 200 telecom companies joined the Clean Network. A recent Wall Street Journal opinion article called the Clean Network “an undisputed success.”

While the U.S. counter to China’s expansion is to focus on the quality of U.S. diplomatic relations over the quantity of China’s diplomatic outposts Krach said, “we’ve got to increase our capabilities by bringing in more talent from the private sector.”