Closer China-Latin America ties should prompt US self-reflection

Warnings about China’s regional influence show the flawed US approach to development cooperation
<p>US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, said Latin America did not new “new imperial powers” (image: <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">US State Department </a>)</p>

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, said Latin America did not new “new imperial powers” (image: US State Department )

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to five Latin American countries, which came just days after the Second Ministerial Meeting of the China-CELAC Forum in Chile’s capital, has prompted analysts to question what Washington’s response to China’s growing presence in Latin America should look like.

The idea of opposing Chinese influence, built on the premise that China is actively building “a world that Latin Americans and others would not find desirable” as US-based Latin America expert R. Evan Ellis wrote in a recent article, is fashionable. The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy goes as far as to use “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.

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 US has largely failed to prioritise and that Latin American countries badly need and want.

Secondly, even today most of Latin America—to the extent that it is reliant on any one country—is more reliant on the US than China. This is rooted in the hemisphere’s geography, history and the countries’ cultural proximity. Furthermore, dependence is mutual.

The majority of the region’s foreign direct investment still comes from the US. Latin America constitutes almost 25% of total US 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 US. Washington’s key ally in South America, Colombia, sells 33% of its goods by value to the US and received as much as US$10 billion in the past 15 years to fight drug production and trafficking. And there is another uncomfortable truth: the US is the largest buyer of crude oil from Venezuela, which accounts for almost a quarter of the Maduro regime’s income.

Fear mongering over China’s presence in the region is also at odds with leading voices in the region. In response to Tillerson’s comments, Peru’s commerce secretary defended China as a “good partner” for his country, and Alicia Bárcena, head of the United Nation’s Economic Commission for Latin America (UN CEPAL) has invited more Chinese investment in the region. The US has been the region’s most important partner. But in an era of American disinterest in the region, China’s growing presence seems timely.

More than at any point in recent history, the US discourse toward Latin America today displays a lack of self-reflection. Secretary Tillerson needlessly invoked the ghost of the Monroe Doctrine – a 19thcentury foreign policy that pledged to defend newly independent nations in the Western Hemisphere from European colonial designs – while simultaneously wagging his finger at Latin America for opening its door to (implicitly imperialist) China.

If former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2013 repudiation of the Doctrine cleared the way for a new kind of engagement with Latin America, the US’ recent diplomatic missteps in the region have hurled us into a bygone era. To claim the Monroe Doctrine a “success” without critically examining the Doctrine’s less savoury implications – it is charged with enabling US intervention in the internal affairs of various Latin American nations – is too selective. The 1973 coup d’état in Chile and the US backed Contra war in Nicaragua are but a few of the Doctrine’s controversial legacies.

Though these may sound like distant historical references, these events transformed Latin American countries. To gloss over them is to cover-up or wilfully forget some problematic and sometimes ugly elements of the US’ policy in the region.

In contrast to the Monroe Doctrine, China’s Latin America policy does not support covert operations or military interventionism. The emphasis on commerce and development is meant to be as useful to China as it is beneficial to its trading partners. Beijing does not offer an authoritarian model for sale. Nor has it the desire or ability to replace leaders it disagrees with outside its own territory.

While it is true that Beijing has found itself in awkward situations in 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 US 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 US at present would prefer to be the region’s chaperone, rather than one among equals. Basing relations on that precept basically prohibits respectful cooperation between the two. Given this context, is it surprising that Peru’s trade minister came out to defend its trade relationship with China?

China, too, could use some self-reflection. Though it has made impressive gains in the region, 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 almost all of China’s overseas endeavours is much more ambitious than the “no politics, strictly business” maxim it carries.

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 US 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 in territory where the US has long held sway, the US should review its product and brand – and compete.

There is no denying that China’s growing engagement with Latin America, like any unforeseen shock, has upset the regional balance, and poses a serious challenge to US leadership in the region. However, the previous balance was arguably far from ideal, and needed recalibration. Right now, it seems Latin America could find the appropriate balance by welcoming and engaging with both the US 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 recognises (and seemingly attributes importance to) the concept of a self-supporting Latin America that doesn’t need to rely on outside powers. If the US wishes to remain a relevant actor and regional leader, it too must recognise the unique appeal of this ideal.

The mere insinuation of military conflict between China and the US, which would imply a war between two nuclear powers, should be enough to freeze that line of thought. Rather than rushing to oppose Chinese inroads in the region, the US 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 US could demonstrate greatness not by hampering other’s efforts at engaging with the region, but by engaging the region’s members, and China too, in order to construct an economically, socially, politically, and environmentally responsible future for the hemisphere.

Editor’s note: This is an edited version of an article originally published by the Global Americans in response to an article that appeared earlier on the site entitled, “It’s time to think strategically about countering Chinese advances in Latin America” by R. Evan Ellis. The views expressed in this work, as with the original work, are solely of the authors.