A recent article by Evan Ellis addresses the important question of what Washington’s response to China’s growing presence in Latin America should look like. It coincides with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to five Latin American countries and comes only days after the Second Ministerial Meeting of the China-CELAC Forum in Chile’s capital.
The notion of “countering,” or opposing, Chinese influence overseas has come into vogue lately, built on the premise (concisely worded by Dr. Ellis’ article) that the People’s Republic is actively building “a world that is not one that Latin Americans and others would find desirable.” The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy introduces the term “predatory” to describe China’s approach to the region. However, instead of “countering” Chinese advances in the region, what is needed is a better understanding of Beijing’s intentions and impact, and a level-headed strategy of constructive engagement centered on Latin America itself, rather than on China.
Within the context of Chinese engagement with Latin America, several points are worth noting. First, claims that what China is trying to build in Latin America is undesirable fly in the face of Beijing’s proposed designs for the region (detailed in programmatic policy papers), which offer a blue-print for far-reaching developmental cooperation and address issues (including scientific advancement, physical integration, human security, and sustainable development) that the U.S. has largely failed to prioritize and that Latin American countries badly need and want.
A second point is that even today most of Latin America—to the extent that it is reliant on any one country—is more reliant on the United States than it is on China. This is rooted in the hemisphere’s geography, history and the countries’ cultural proximity. Furthermore, that level of dependence is mutual: the lion’s share of the region’s foreign direct investment still originates in the U.S.; Latin America constitutes almost 25% of total U.S. trade; and its producers export three times more to Latin America than to China. Mexico’s economy, for example, is thoroughly intertwined with that of the United States. Washington’s key ally in South America, Colombia, sells 33% of its goods by value to the U.S. and received as much as $10 billion over the past 15 years to combat drug production and trafficking. This is also without mentioning the uncomfortable truth that the U.S. is the largest buyer of Venezuelan crude oil, which accounts for almost a quarter of the Maduro regime’s income.
Fear mongering over China’s presence in the region is also markedly at odds with leading voices in the region. In response to Secretary Tillerson’s trip to the region, Peru’s commerce secretary defended China as a “good partner” for his country, and the head of the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Latin America has invited more Chinese investment in the region. Indeed, the United States has been, and remains, the region’s most important partner. But in an era of American disinterest in the region, China’s growing presence seems all the more timely. More than at any point in recent history, the United States’ discourse toward Latin America today displays a lack of self-reflection that quickly turns into a liability when dealing with the region. Secretary Tillerson needlessly invoked the ghost of the Monroe Doctrine and its stronger 20th century follow-up while simultaneously wagging his finger at Latin America for opening its door to (the implicitly imperialist) China in the first place.
If Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013 repudiation of the Doctrine cleared the way for a new kind of engagement with Latin America, the U.S.’ recent string of diplomatic missteps in the region have hurled us back into the past. It seems all too selective to claim the Monroe Doctrine a “success” without critically examining the Doctrine’s less savory implications. The 1973 coup d’état in Chile and the U.S.-backed Contra war in Nicaragua are but a few of the Doctrine’s controversial legacies. While these may sound like distant historical references to many today, these events deeply transformed Latin American countries, and glossing over them means covering up or willfully forgetting some difficult and at times ugly elements of the United States’ policy in the region.
In contrast to the Monroe Doctrine, Chinese policy towards Latin America does not lend itself easily to covert operations or military interventionism. The emphasis on commerce and development is intended to be as useful to China as it is beneficial to its trading partners. Beijing does not offer an authoritarian model for sale, and it has neither the desire nor the ability to replace uncomfortable leaders outside its own territory. While it is true that Beijing has found itself in awkward situations in some countries (such as Ecuador) due to the corruption that pervades big business and politics, and wishes it could extricate itself from the quagmire of Maduro’s political machinations in Venezuela, there is little reason to believe that China’s influence threatens Latin American democracies.
That some in the United States don’t seem to trust Latin America in an empty room with China (i.e. the China-CELAC Forum) merely serves to drive the point home that the United States at present would prefer to be the region’s chaperone, rather than one among equals. Basing relations on that precept basically makes respectful cooperation between the two a non-starter. In this context, is it surprising that Peru’s trade minister came out in defense of its trading partnership with China?
This is not to deny that, for all its talk of self-criticism, China, too, could use some self-reflection. China has made impressive gains in the region, but it has also made some unpopular choices and faces increasing criticism from Latin Americans themselves. China’s appetite for commodities threatens the Amazon basin and Peruvian hardwood forests. Energy-generating infrastructure projects in Ecuador and Argentina may be problematic environmentally and in terms of financial obligations. The Belt and Road Initiative that has come to frame all of China’s outward endeavors is much more ambitious than “no politics, strictly business.” Carrying the banner of a developing country, China seems oblivious to fears (already surfacing in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia) that its actions can be interpreted as neocolonialist. China’s offers, as the Secretary of State said, can indeed come at a price—as can those of any major power.
For decades, the United States has championed the benefits of competition, free markets, and financial gain. None of these are laws of nature, but they are the prevailing ideas of the modern economy. So if China is setting up shop next-door, the U.S. should review its product and brand, and compete. There is no denying that China’s growing engagement with Latin America, like any external shock, has upset the regional balance, and poses a serious challenge to U.S. leadership in the region. There is an argument to be made, however, that the previous balance was far from ideal, and needed recalibration. For Latin America right now, it seems that the appropriate balance is to welcome and engage with both the United States and China.
Scholars in China are actively exploring Latin America’s post-hegemonic scenario: a Latin America that is “nobody’s backyard.” This message resonates with many Latin Americans for one simple reason: it recognizes (and seemingly attributes importance to) the concept of a self-supporting Latin America that doesn’t need to rely on outside powers. If the United States wishes to remain a relevant actor and regional leader, it too must recognize the unique appeal of this ideal.
The mere insinuation of military conflict between China and the U.S., which would imply a war between two nuclear powers, should be enough to freeze that line of thought in its tracks. Rather than rushing to oppose Chinese inroads in the region, the U.S. should seize the opportunity to critically examine its approach to Latin America and rethink the status quo in the Western Hemisphere. China’s proposals have many merits, and the U.S. would show greatness not by hampering other’s efforts at engaging with the region, but by engaging the region’s members, and China, to construct an economically, socially, politically, and environmentally responsible future for the hemisphere.
Ricardo Barrios is Program Associate at the Latin America and the World Program, Inter-American Dialogue
Benjamin Creutzfeldt, PhD, is Resident Postdoctoral Fellow for China-Latin America-U.S. Affairs at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University
Note: This article is a response to another article that appeared on Global Americans, “It’s time to think strategically about countering Chinese advances in Latin America” by Evan Ellis. The views expressed in this work, as with the original work, are solely of the authors.