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Index Reveals Australia’s Diplomatic Network Lags Behind Its Economic Might

‘Diplomacy is often overlooked as a measure of influence, but it has never been a more important element of statecraft.’

Australia’s diplomatic footprint remained undersized relative to its economic weight, with its network having a similar size to Portugal, Chile, and Pakistan, a think tank report has shown.

The Global Diplomacy Index, launched in 2016 by the Lowy Institute, aims to provide insights into countries’ official overseas presence, and where they sought to wield it to build influence.

It shows Australia and New Zealand have experienced the fastest growth rate of any region in the world in terms of hosting new foreign diplomatic posts.

Despite having the 14th largest economy in the world, Australia ranked 26th on the index, with its diplomatic footprint near the bottom of the G20, ahead of only South Africa.

“Australia’s diplomatic footprint is far smaller than its economic power would suggest,” said Ryan Neelam, the director of public opinion and foreign policy at the Lowy Institute.

Australia focuses its influence in Asia, with a particular interest in Southeast Asia, followed by Europe and the Pacific Islands.

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In the past decade, Canberra has expanded its diplomatic footprint most rapidly in the South Pacific.

In addition to funding commitments to East Timor, climate agreements with Tuvalu and continued diplomatic invites to Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, Canberra has maintained focus on the Pacific through a variety of political levers.

On the other hand, Australia’s diplomatic presence is limited in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. It hasn’t opened any resident posts in Central America, Central Asia, Central Africa, the Baltic region, or the Caucasus.

Countries With Biggest Diplomatic Networks

Meanwhile, China currently has the most diplomatic posts, closely followed by the United States after U.S. embassies were suspended in a number of countries including Afghanistan, Sudan, and Belarus.

Findings revealed that Beijing had 274 diplomatic posts in its global network, while the United States had 271 posts.

In the past decade, due to pressure from China, some countries have switched their diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, with Nauru becoming the latest nation to do so in January 2024, right after Taiwan’s election.

“Only 12 countries in the world still maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan as the Republic of China,” the report said, adding that China “picks off countries through economic and other enticements.”

The index also showed a rush to the Pacific, with the United States and China competing for influence.

Australia has also worked to counter Beijing’s increasingly aggressive push for influence in the Pacific, opening up six diplomatic missions in the region since 2018, giving it official representation to every member of the Pacific Islands forum. This means Australia has the biggest diplomatic network in the Pacific.

“Diplomacy is often overlooked as a measure of influence, but it has never been a more important element of statecraft,” Mr. Neelam said on Feb. 25.

“The Global Diplomacy Index shows that governments continue to invest in diplomacy to project power and achieve their interests.”

The report noted that among different forms of national power, including economic, military, and technological, diplomacy has been “one of the most undercounted, and thus often overlooked, levers of influence.”

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