China now has the largest diplomatic network in the world, overtaking the United States for the first time, according to a leading policy think tank.
Beijing currently has 276 diplomatic posts globally, three more than Washington, according to the updated Global Diplomacy Index compiled by the Sydney-based independent, nonpartisan Lowy Institute.
In 2016, China was in third place behind the US and France and a year later it had climbed to second place. There was no report in 2018.
The index maps the size and reach of 61 diplomatic networks around the world by embassies, consulates, permanent missions and other diplomatic posts.
It tracks all G20 countries, all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and most Asian countries. As the only resource of its kind, it allows users to compare the most significant diplomatic networks globally.
"While Beijing and Washington are neck-and-neck in terms of the number of embassies they have, China is unmatched in its number of consulates, with 96 globally compared with the United States' 88, suggesting its diplomatic expansion is closely linked to its economic interests," according to the report.
According to the index, the US is home to some 342 embassies and consulates belonging to the 61 countries included in the index. China, with 256, comes in second.
Bonnie Bley, lead research fellow of the report, said while the US no longer has the world's biggest diplomatic network, "diplomatic infrastructure is only a small part of diplomatic influence".
The fact that China now has the biggest diplomatic network in the world "tells us Beijing has invested considerable resources into diplomacy, which can be a useful barometer of national ambitions and priorities", Bley said.
"As it stands, this development is of symbolic significance," she added.
Asked how much the Belt and Road Initiative played in China's diplomatic expansion, Bley said, "While the US and China are effectively on par for their number of embassies, Beijing has a larger network of consulates.
"Unlike embassies, which often have a political function, consulates primarily facilitate economic cooperation between countries.
"This may suggest that China's diplomatic network－and its emphasis on consulates－is partly geared toward facilitating China's Belt and Road Initiative," she said.
While China has steadily invested in its diplomatic infrastructure, adding five posts since 2017, the US has seen its total diplomatic posts drop by one over the same period, following the closure of its diplomatic outpost in St. Petersburg, Russia.
This can partly be explained by a natural slowdown in diplomatic expansion once countries have established networks, Bley said.
"The US already had a large network so it would be difficult to add many more posts," she said.
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