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As US digs in, China ups its stakes

Jamey Keaten and Matthew Lee
Associated Press

Geneva – Chinese leaders have long been sensitive about their communist country’s international image. Now, they are battling back – investing in diplomacy and a courtship of hearts and minds, just as the United States digs in on the Trump administration’s “America First” mindset.

FILE - In this Oct. 7, 2019, file photo visitors hold up patriotic slogans including "Cheer for China", "My China Dream" near an I Heart China art installation in Beijing.

A trade war and other frictions between the world’s top economic power and the fast-growing No. 2 have exposed Washington’s fears about technology, security and influence. U.S. political leaders have derided China’s government over policies in protest-riddled Hong Kong, at detention centers in the majority Muslim Xinjiang region, and over allegedly underhanded business tactics by tech titan Huawei.

But increasingly, China is seeking to recapture the narrative – with a new assertiveness under President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader in decades.

“Almost overnight, we have awakened to the reality that while America slept, the Chinese Communist Party has emerged as an immediate and growing threat to our prosperity, our freedoms, and our security,” Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.) said in a speech to the National Defense University last week.

Now the Chinese even have the world’s biggest diplomatic arsenal to draw from. China’s diplomatic network – including embassies, consulates and other posts – has overtaken that of the United States, according to the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. Beijing has 276 diplomatic posts worldwide, topping Washington’s declining deployment by three posts, the institute found.

China’s growing diplomatic presence comes as Beijing is trying to expand its international footprint in places like resource-rich Africa or the strategic South China Sea, and to compete economically with Western countries, including with its much-ballyhooed Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to expand Chinese economic clout in places like Africa and Asia.

China’s campaign to increase its influence on the global stage comes as the Trump administration retreats from multilateral diplomacy. Trump has pulled the United States out of the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organization and the U.N.-supported Human Rights Council, and this month the U.S. squeezed the World Trade Organization’s appeals court out of action.