China’s expanding presence and influence in Latin America is now widely recognized by political and business leaders and security professionals.
In the last two decades, the nation’s trade with the region has expanded 18-fold to $314 billion, while its companies have become important partners and suppliers for firms operating there and key owners and operators of the region’s oilfields, mines, ports, telecommunications and electricity grids.
In the security sphere, the People’s Liberation Army has become increasingly active in the region, sending military police to the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti for eight years, deploying its hospital ship on three separate occasions, regularly sending its warships for “friendly” port calls and military exercises, participating in elite training programs such as Brazil’s jungle warfare school and the Lanceros course in Colombia, hosting the region’s military and police officers in China, and making countless institutional visits.
China-based defense companies such as the NORINCO group have sold or given a broad array of equipment to the region’s security forces, including not only anti-U.S. regimes, but those consistently friendly to the United States such as Colombia and Peru.
In the more than 16 years that I have followed and written on China’s expanding engagement in Latin America, successive U.S. administrations have struggled to credibly explain to our partners in the region why that is a problem for them, as well as for the United States.
China’s engagement with Latin America presents multiple strategic perils, wrapped in values the United States and its partners hold dear.
The Chinese people have every right to be prosperous and secure. Latin Americans similarly have the right to benefit from economic and other engagement with all parts of the world. Yet China’s often predatory efforts to secure its own benefit through its initiatives, and behind-the-scenes incentives, pressures and maneuvering produces relationships which are disadvantageous to its counterparts. It enables corruption and authoritarian populism in the region to which U.S. security and prosperity is most closely tied.
Globally, Chinese efforts advance a world order in which human rights and liberties, international law, democracy and the freedom of expression are subordinated to the interests of Beijing where they conflict, and in which states and groups that have something that the People’s Republic of China wants — or that threaten its security and economic expansion — are ever more imperiled.
While China’s goals are principally economic, it employs political relationships and revisions to the institutional order to facilitate them, while building military capabilities with global reach to protect the nation against those that it anticipates will resist its efforts.
Never before in modern human history has a state so powerful, so fundamentally put at risk the global institutional order, security, freedoms and prosperity of the rest, employing an approach that was so superficially benign, and disarming its targets from within by playing to their short-term material interests.
At the center of China’s approach is building, buying and stealing key business capabilities, coordinating across sectors and value chains to build and exploit monopolies, and using its growing economic influence — in combination with statecraft and other tools — to silence critics and create a political, institutional and business environment receptive to its further advance.
China’s strategy is arguably more easily recognizable by business strategists than military and political leaders, yet employs a level of coordination between commercial entities and state tools, across domains and geographies on a scale unprecedented in human history.
In Latin America, as elsewhere, the PRC has used its corporations at the core of its strategy, empowering them with resources and support in obtaining key technologies and market position. While a sectoral analysis of what China has achieved with its $137 billion in loans and $122 billion of investment in the region in the past two decades is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to highlight key patterns.
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