China’s Geocultural Influence Reaches New Heights as the U.S. Fades from View
Editors’ Note: This article is part of our special series Predictions & Predicaments. It should be read as if written in the year 2025. Read more about the special series here.
Today marks the conclusion of the 49th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Lamu, Kenya, the annual meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) body that recognizes landmarks and areas that have been deemed uniquely valuable to the global population. The biggest news from the 10-day meeting was the recognition of dozens of historic cities across China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan for their contribution to the historic Silk Road trading routes. The cities were formally inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as an expansion upon the existing Silk Roads World Heritage Site first inscribed by the Committee in 2014.
The inscriptions of both the original Site and this year’s additions were spearheaded by the Chinese delegation and mark a significant step forward in the Chinese government’s ongoing efforts to expand China’s geocultural influence through the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). To that end, UNESCO has proved to be an incredibly useful platform for China to flex its cultural prowess. In 2017, the Chinese government funded the relaunch of the organization’s quarterly Courier, which regularly publishes flattering profiles on heritage preservation programs and training workshops sponsored by the Chinese. Just one year later, Chinese Ambassador Xing Qu was named UNESCO Deputy Director General, not long after the United States announced it would be withdrawing from the multilateral organization. In the years since, China has made the most of America’s absence and looks to solidify its position as a cultural superpower in this autumn’s election for the next UNESCO Director-General. If China’s campaign is successful, it would mark the country’s first time holding the Director-General position and would usher in an era of unimpeded Chinese geocultural reach.
This year’s World Heritage Committee Session was decidedly less remarkable for the United States, marking the country’s fifth consecutive unsuccessful bid at inscribing a new American World Heritage Site. The latest in a series of setbacks for the United States at UNESCO, the slight comes just one year after the Everglades National Park was deleted from the World Heritage List after the Committee determined that the U.S. government had failed to make a substantial effort to restore and support the Everglades and its wider ecosystem in the face of the growing climate crisis.
This all comes in the midst of the United States’ glaring absence from Expo 2025 in Osaka, Japan. The Expo–which opened its doors earlier this summer under the theme “Designing Future Society for Our Lives”–is the year’s most significant public diplomacy event and a showcase for participating countries’ economic strength and trade prowess. Skipping Osaka comes as a major blow to the State Department and the U.S. private sector, though a number of leading corporations have ensured that their presence will be felt through sponsorship agreements and partnerships with other countries. While the United States’ absence is notable, it is not entirely unexpected; struggling against a Congressional ban on the use of public funds for International Expos and unable to fundraise an adequate amount from private partners, the U.S. pavilion at Expo 2020 in Dubai almost went bust before the Emirati government generously footed the nearly $60 million bill. This year’s host proved to be more cost-conscious. As at UNESCO, the Chinese are more than prepared to fill the gap left behind by the United States. The Chinese pavilion, which cost a reported $200 million, will welcome the nearly 28 million visitors projected to pass through during the Expo’s six-month run. In addition to funding its own pavilion, the Chinese government has reportedly provided financial assistance to a number of its African and Central and South Asian partners through the BRI.
But all is not lost for the Americans. After a well-received preview at the closing ceremony last summer in Paris, preparations are already underway for the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Los Angeles. The Olympics remain one of the few truly global events and an unparalleled stage for public diplomacy. If utilized correctly, the United States could make up some of the ground its lost to China and remind the world of America’s cultural appeal and influence. However, countering China’s geocultural strategy requires the U.S. government to acknowledge the value of public and cultural diplomacy and appropriate the necessary human and financial resources to initiatives at home and abroad. The 2028 Games are the perfect launching pad for a renewed American effort, but time is running out. The ball is in America’s court.
Shannon McNaught is an MA candidate in Intercultural & International Communication at American University’s School of International Service, with a research focus on cultural and heritage diplomacy. Shannon currently resides in Kyoto, Japan, where she is writing her Masters thesis on local narratives at controversial Japanese UNESCO World Heritage Sites.