Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to China has once again brought attention to the increasingly complex dynamic between the two countries. While China emphasizes the importance of stable relations, the United States has expressed concerns regarding China’s actions in areas such as the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and East China Sea, as well as human rights. While these broader concerns are significant, it seems that the administration’s bandwidth is stretched thin. This has meant that a proactive approach is reserved for large-scale foreign policy priorities only. It is important not to overlook smaller, but still crucial, aspects of the global power struggle, for example, what is happening in the Americas. It is not enough to simply “let it be” as the Beatles would sing. While a great song, this approach is not an effective foreign policy, and the United States cannot ignore regions or issues that are not perceived as full-blown crises. While the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has become increasingly engaged in the hemisphere, “letting it be” has become the thrust of the U.S. foreign policy approach toward Latin America. This approach risks developing an increasingly disadvantageous environment for the United States.
The United States faces growing challenges and competitors in the Americas. Despite positive steps, the United States has not developed a holistic, strategic approach to the region. China’s rapid growth and subsequent demand have driven the region’s commodities boom. Roughly twenty years ago, China accounted for less than 2 percent of Latin America’s exports. Over the following decade, trade grew at an average annual rate of 31 percent, reaching around USD $180 billion in 2010. The growth continued, and last year, trade amounted to approximately USD $450 billion. China currently ranks as Latin America’s second-largest commercial trading partner, and there are no signs of this growth in trade slowing. It is projected that over the next 12 years, trade between Latin America and China could reach USD $700 billion.
China’s expanding presence, particularly in South America, raises concerns as China strengthens ties and influence through financial dependence, investments in critical minerals, vaccine diplomacy (especially during the COVID-19 pandemic), and cultural propaganda. By strategically increasing its involvement, China could hinder the United States’ ability to project influence in the region. Growing extra-hemispheric influence is not limited to China. For instance, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s recent tour of Latin America highlighted the potential exploitation of the region by emerging global powers. This pressing issue requires the attention of the United States, as China, Russia, and Iran all pose challenges to America’s influence in Latin America.
Given Latin America’s significance in great power competition and the risks it poses to U.S. national security, clear objectives, prioritization, sustained attention, and targeted engagement are crucial. Inaction, as suggested by “Let it be,” is inadequate—the United States must prioritize its engagement. Not doing so could strengthen rival powers and lead to detrimental outcomes. To effectively manage risks and seize opportunities in Latin America, the United States must adopt a comprehensive “whole-of-government approach” (WGA), coordinating efforts across various government agencies. Mexico, due to its proximity and strategic importance, requires particular attention, risk mitigation, and contingency planning.
Despite the U.S. government’s limited approach, there have been some positive developments. The June 13 meeting between President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou aimed to strengthen trade ties in the region. However, “one-off” meetings alone are insufficient to effectively counter China’s activities in the Americas. These meetings need to be accompanied by clear and substantive “next steps.” It would have been a timely action for the Biden administration to explicitly endorse the bipartisan “United States-Uruguay Economic Partnership Act” as this bill is designed to promote bilateral trade by reducing U.S. tariffs on certain Uruguayan exports and facilitating visas for trade and investment. An endorsement would have provided much-needed clarity and served as a demonstration of the administration’s commitment to economic growth in the region. This is especially important considering that the bill aligns with the principles of the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP), which is a priority for the Biden administration. Implementing these measures would not only solidify the partnership with Uruguay but also help address the challenges posed by China’s growing commercial influence.
The importance of the region for the United States requires a more expansive engagement from across the U.S. government. In addition to the broader WGA effort, there is a need for additional reforms to engagement, including enterprise funds, project financing, debt forbearance, and new lending. A more pragmatic, targeted, consistent, and contemporary approach is essential to provide policymakers with a diverse toolkit for advancing U.S. interests in the region. To effectively coordinate responses, a standing WGA effort should be in place, allocating adequate resources, attention, and staffing for Latin America. The United States cannot afford to simply ignore these challenges. The United States cannot simply “Let it be.”
Carl Meacham is a Managing Director at FTI Consulting, where he specializes in political risk management and government affairs. Prior to joining FTI, Mr. Meacham led PhRMA’s advocacy efforts for Latin America, Canada, and Europe. Prior he held the position of Senior Manager for Public Policy and Government Relations for Uber in South America and served as the Director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). Mr. Meacham spent over a decade as Senator Richard Lugar’s (R-IN) senior professional staffer for Latin America on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). He has also worked for Senate Majority Leaders Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Harry Reid (D-NV) and held a political appointee position in the Clinton administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Though born in the United States, Mr. Meacham was raised in Chile, his mother’s country of origin.