U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Buenos Aires takes place at a moment of international turmoil. Although Trump cancelled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the last minute due to a crisis in Ukraine, he’ll still meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman right after an egregious scandal. He’ll also sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the midst of a bilateral trade war and economic global uncertainty triggered by Asia-Pacific and European (Brexit) negotiations, subjects that he will also have to discuss with a variety of other leaders.
In this context, the media has understandably downplayed one central aspect of this trip: this will be Trump’s first visit to Latin America. Yet there are several reasons why this should remain a front and center issue of the trip.
First is the important public relations aspect. Earlier this year Trump cancelled a visit to Lima for the VIII Summit of the Americas, becoming the first U.S. President to miss the event. He also cancelled a trip to Colombia that was supposed to follow the Summit. This apparent disregard for the region, together with his harsh rhetoric against migrants, has had a negative impact in public opinion toward the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, positive perceptions of the U.S. have dropped 10 percent in the last two years in Argentina alone, and around 25 percent in Chile and Brazil during the same period of time. At the same time, confidence in the U.S. President has dropped dramatically, by 30 percent in Argentina, and up to 50 percent in Chile and Brazil.
The other side of the coin is the increasing “pro-China” sentiment in the region. Analyzing survey data collected from the 2017 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, the regional median favorable opinion of China has surpassed the regional median favorable opinion of the United States. In Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, China has surpassed the United States in terms of favorable opinion.
Second, there’s the diplomatic aspect to this visit. China has consolidated itself as a key trading partner of Latin America in recent years, increasing the political leverage of Beijing in the region. Latin American countries typically aligned themselves with Washington’s position regarding diplomatic relations with the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC). With the exception of Cuba, all countries in the region established relations with the PRC only after Nixon’s rapprochement in the 70’s. Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay did not recognize the PRC until the 80’s, and a considerable number of countries, including Paraguay in South America and most of Central America and the Caribbean, continue to hold diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
However, tides are changing fast in this realm. In August 2018, El Salvador became the third country in the past two years to switch diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing, following Panama and the Dominican Republic. These realignments are also happening amongst countries that already had relations with the PRC. The clearest examples of this are the countries National Security Advisor John Bolton classified as a “Troika of Tyranny:” Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
The third aspect to the trip is trade and finance. Although it is true that the recent victory of right-wing candidates in countries like Brazil and Colombia hints at potential commercial realignment with Washington, in the last few decades, Latin American countries—and South America in particular—have opportunistically reaped the benefits of the emerging bipolarity. Argentine producers, for example, have recently profited from U.S. regulations on the sale of soybean exports to the PRC to buy legumes at a cheaper price, which they then process into oil or food products and sell back to Chinese buyers.
Moreover, the United States has taken South America for granted in the negotiations that are reconfiguring world trade, dramatically changing the nature of trade relations between China and South America. Considering trade flows in South America, the United States has lost market share both as supplier and as a consumer. South America’s exports to the United States represented around 15 percent of its total exports in 2015. In 2017, this number dropped to around 11 percent.
The opposite happened with China, where the exports from South America increased from 16 percent in 2015 to more than 18 percent in 2017. While the landscape is shifting slowly, China has facilitated greater trade access to South America than to the U.S. during the last decade. While Chinese trade policies have been positive toward Latin America, the U.S. has been increasingly protectionist when dealing with the region.
Finally, in the financial realm for the five-year period between 2015 and 2019, China’s President Xi Jinping set ambitious trading goals with the region: $500 billion in trade and $250 billion in direct investment, a perfectly feasible pledge if the current bilateral trade and financial dynamics continue. A recent report of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Asia and Latin America program shows that China’s construction of transport infrastructure in the region has grown over the past five years. The report shows that since 2002, China has expressed interest in developing about 150 transport infrastructure projects in Latin America and the Caribbean. As of 2018, around 70 of these projects had entered some phase of construction.
President Trump should take advantage of his trip to Argentina, even superficially to show his Latin American counterparts that they matter. Signing the renegotiated NAFTA is a good first step, but for someone who claims to be a master of the Art of the Deal, the bare minimum of showing up should be an easy task. We all know the Chinese delegation in Buenos Aires will be doing their part.
Nicolás Albertoni (@N_Albertoni) is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California, where he studies the political economy of trade policy and protectionism, with a regional focus in Latin America.
Luis Schenoni (@llschenoni) is a Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame where he studies state capacity, regime change, and foreign policy analysis, with a regional focus in Latin America.