One year ago this very week, President Mauricio Macri hosted US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires at the G20 Leaders Summit, meeting with both and treading the geopolitical tightrope between two superpowers without major incident. That balancing act – which was accompanied by a bilateral meeting between Xi and Trump to hash out trade tensions – reflected the jostling for global influence that has become so apparent in recent years.
While Beijing and Washington continue to haggle and entertain themselves with great displays of power politics, it is worth remembering that the Americas as a region is just one of the arenas in which the world’s two largest economies are vying for influence. And while that influence can be measured in a variety of ways, data recently published by the Lowy Institute on the global diplomatic networks of 61 G20, OECD and Asian countries sheds some light on the relative diplomatic presence that China and United States have in Latin America and the Caribbean.
This year marks the first time that China’s diplomatic network – measured in terms of embassies, consulates and permanent missions to international organisations – was larger than the US array of posts. China had 276 missions in 2019, just slightly ahead of the White House’s 273. As noted by the Lowy Institute’s Bonnie Bley in The Interpreter, China has taken the top spot globally by progressively expanding its network while the Washington’s has receded slightly. France has the third largest global network with 267, followed by Japan and Russia.
However, the global trend isn’t quite reflected in Latin America, where the US retains primacy. In the Americas (excluding Canada) the US had 41 posts in 2019, whereas China had 29. Those figures haven’t changed much since 2016, when Washington had 39 diplomatic missions in the region and China 28. However, that 12-post margin for the United States is nonetheless padded by eight consulates in Mexico, suggesting a far greater regional balance than one might expect at first glance.
Diplomacy though is by definition a two-way street and, of course, the Americas are well represented in Washington and Beijing. But the among the G20 countries of the Americas, Brazil is the best connected, ranking eighth among all G20 countries with 222 embassies, consulates and permanent missions. It is also far more represented internationally than its G20 neighbours – Argentina and Mexico take 13th and 14th place respectively among G20 countries but they have about 65 less posts abroad than Brazil. Canada takes 15th in the G20, with 144 posts around the globe in 2019 and just 23 in the Americas (excluding posts in the United States).
As a measure of influence, the number of missions a country has established around the world is clearly inadequate on its own. The data doesn’t include information on the size of each mission or its staff, and it doesn’t help to distinguish posts that are mainly providing consular assistance from those hammering out trade, investment and strategic agreements.
And yet, still, it does hint at priorities. Having a presence on the ground, understanding the complexities and nuances of political and economic developments and building relationships is invaluable – diplomacy by telephone call doesn’t nearly have the same kind of impact.
To the extent that tensions between China and the United States continue, it will be these missions that will be silently walking the walk, while the leaders talk the talk.