More than a decade ago, before China’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere was widely recognized, Margaret Myers began to study Sino-Latin American relations. Today, as the director of the Latin America and the World Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, she is one of the leading experts in Chinese-Latin American relations in the hemisphere.
Upon assuming her current position in 2011, Myers established the Dialogue’s China and Latin America Working Group, which convenes experts on China’s growing presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, and developed the China-Latin America Finance Database, the only publicly available source of empirical data on Chinese state lending to Latin America, in cooperation with Boston University’s Global Economic Governance Initiative (GEGI).
Myers is also a published author whose work has been featured in the Economist, Financial Times, and the New York Times.
Nominated as one of Global Americans’ 2018 New Generation of Public Intellectuals, our team had a chance to speak to Myers, learn about her career path and experience in the think tank community, her current projects and her view on the future of Latin American dynamics with China and the United States.
Margaret, first of all thank you for accepting the award and for taking the time to speak to us about your work and current projects.
Thank you, it’s a very kind gesture and I really appreciate it.
Let’s start with your background. Where did the interest to study China-Latin American relations come from?
I’ve always had an interest in both China and Latin America separately and my professional background reflects that. I studied both Spanish and Chinese—Spanish in high school as many people do in the U.S., and Chinese in college. I traveled to both regions as a student early on in my studies, which really captured my interest. I spent a few months in China when I graduated from college in 2002, and I’d previously studied in Argentina as part of a study abroad program.
After that, my experience with both languages largely drove my career choices, and I ended up working as a teacher of both Chinese and Spanish, and then later on doing some work for private foundations in Latin America and Asia.
I also worked for the Department of Defense as a Latin American analyst and a China analyst. At that point, I didn’t really do much on the China-Latin American relationship, followed the relationship as a point of personal interest.
When I began working at the Dialogue nearly a decade ago, I was able to look at the China-Latin America dynamic in considerably more depth. At that point the China-Latin America relationship was very well established, but still largely centered on trade ties.
Trade is still a fundamental part of the relationship, but the relationship is growing increasingly complex. China’s foreign direct investment is growing and diversifying in some cases, and Chinese state finance has been a critical source of liquidity for many countries. People to people connections in addition to political and diplomatic are also growing. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to track this increasingly dynamic relationship.
Do you notice a difference in how Sino-Latin American relations have been changing since President Trump took office? Is there a significant or marked difference before and after?
The China-Latin American dynamic is remarkably static in many ways. So much of Chinese engagement with the region is still governed by the tenets of “going out” strategy, which has three main tenets: seeking access to raw materials; establishing overseas export markets; and internationalizing Chinese companies and brands. So much of what we see happening in the region still supports these decades old objectives.
In all honesty, I’d say that the China-Latin America dynamic has changed more as a result of Xi Jinping’s election than Trump’s. When Xi came into office, we saw actually quite a bit more focus form China on the Latin American region, not only for the reasons indicated in the “going out” strategy—which are still important—but also because Xi saw overseas engagement in general, not only with Latin America but with a variety of regions, as very much supportive of China’s own domestic reform agenda.
China has increasingly promoted overseas investment as a means by which to effectively employ foreign reserves and excess capacity. In addition, a series of high-level visits by Xi, as well as Premier Li Keqiang and a wide variety of high-ranking officials, has strengthened China-Latin America ties in recent years.
Finally, the Chinese government has released a series of new policies focused on Latin America. These promote a wider variety of engagement with the region, including many of the economic, infrastructure, and people-to-people ties promoted by the Belt and Road Initiative, although that remains focused on Eurasia.
Since President Trump took office I haven’t seen any major shifts in China’s main interests or approach to the region. If anything, the most significant change has been a shift in perspective on the part of Latin American countries. In the past, Chinese engagement was often greeted with a degree of suspicion or concern. Now there is more acceptance of China as a partner, and more interest in engaging with China simply because there aren’t too many good alternatives.
From the U.S., growing Chinese presence is often viewed as a threat. But many Latin American countries see it as a great opportunity. Do you think this will imply less and less U.S. leadership in the region? As Americans, should we be wary about China’s growing presence in the Hemisphere?
Interestingly [former Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson and [Department of the Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs David] Malpass made some remarks, I believe it was in mid-February, about the China’s “threat” to the region. Their comments weren’t necessarily inaccurate. It’s been the case that some Chinese investments have indeed led to corruption and unsustainable debt in some countries. But the US isn’t exactly offering an attractive alternative to the Latin American region. It remains a low foreign policy priority for the Trump administration.
Yes. Like the case of the bullet train in Mexico, which was contracted to a Chinese-led consortium and then cancelled.
Absolutely. That’s a great example of the challenges that China encounters when investing in the region.
The fact is that at this point both Chinese and Latin America actors are increasingly aware of the costs and benefits of engaging with each other.
That said, China is really the only actor with both the will and the financial ability to invest extensively in the region, especially in transport and other infrastructure, which is something that the region so desperately needs. There are of course a few other actors, but the region is largely looking to China to carry out some of a wide variety of projects.
Let’s turn to the region’s most pressing crisis: Venezuela. You recently published a piece where you mention that state investments from the so called “policy banks” from China to Latin America have reached their lowest point in the past 5 years, which is mainly driven by a pause in investments to Venezuela. Do you take this as a sign that China is joining international pressure against the Maduro regime? Or is it merely a precautionary measure?
At this point in time, China is mostly trying to avoid throwing good money after bad. China billions in assets in Venezuela. They have tried over the past couple of years in particular guide decision making in Caracas by providing advice or by tying loans to production capacity projects in the oil sector, in order to try to help Venezuela right itself economically.
That has not proven successful. The situation has deteriorated more rapidly than I think anyone could have expected. At this point, Beijing doesn’t see much value in giving more money to Venezuela, especially not in the amounts they have given previously.
That’s not to say that China is looking to withdraw from Venezuela, not at all. China still considers Venezuela to be an important partner. China continues to view Venezuela as a critical partner in its energy security calculus. Beijing will also be seeking repayment of outstanding oil-backed loans. China will continue to maintain ties with Venezuela for the foreseeable future.
My sense is that this is a “wait and see period” for China and many other actors, as everyone tries to determine how the dust will settle and how long that will take. I would expect the Chinese to engage with whomever governs Venezuela in the coming years. Maduro will likely win the upcoming election, but I would assume China would engage rather quickly with a new government, whenever that materializes and however it looks..
Thank you for those valuable insights. I’d like to talk about leadership and the inclusion of women in the policy world. You and I know that the world of policy and politics continues to be predominately male. As a woman in this sector, do you see the need for greater diversity? How could the inclusion of women improve politics?
It’s been proven in study after study that the inclusion of women, whether in the private or public sector, has led to better, more sustainable and more inclusive institutional decision-making.
Interestingly, many of the prominent female voices in DC happen to be younger ones, which reflects the novelty of this process. This is an issue that only recently is getting the attention it deserves. In Washington, at least, there are efforts to ensure that women’s voices are sufficiently represented in panels and events.
I think it’s extraordinarily important to ensure a considerable degree of gender equity across the board. In think tanks, in public service, or the private sector, there is important progress being made. We are seeing more female representation in Washington and in public policy in particular, but it’s a slow process.
One last question. Global Americans has included you in its list of The New Generation of Public Intellectuals along with other prominent young voices from around the region. From the policy perspective, what does it mean to you to be a leading member of a new generation of public intellectuals?
It’s a tremendous honor, especially to be included in a list along with these other remarkable young women and men, many of whom I follow closely. I look to them as sources of inspiration; many of them are doing just really remarkable work in a wide variety of areas. So for me it’s really a tremendous privilege to be listed alongside them.
I do hope to be an influential voice, but I take this as a process and I’m continuing to learn quite a bit about the think tank community in general and my responsibilities as a member of it. I hope to effectively shape U.S., China and Latin American dynamics, to promote policy that is in fact beneficial to society at large and to promote real and sustainable linkages across the board. That’s what we’re aiming to do and I’m grateful for the shout out. It’s a great recognition of the work we’re doing to try to make a difference.
You absolutely deserve it. Thank you so much for your time Margaret.
Margaret Myers is the director of the Latin America and the World Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.
This interview has been edited and condensed.