Washington watches as China and Latin America deepen their ties

Foreign policy experts in the US have alerted to the growing economic relationship between Latin America and China, a trend only expected to increase in the coming period

April 07, 2022 by Marco Fernandes
On February 6, the governments of Argentine President Alberto Fernández and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a memorandum of understanding on collaboration under the Belt and Road Initiative, a global trade infrastructure project promoted by the People’s Republic of China. Photo: Alberto Fernández

Less than a week after the start of Russia’s military intervention, Juan Sebastian Gonzalez, senior director of Western Hemisphere affairs at the US National Security Council, in an interview with Voice of America (a State Department asset), stated that “the sanctions against Russia are so robust that they will have an impact on those governments that have economic affiliations with Russia, and that is by design. So, Venezuela will start feeling the pressure; Nicaragua will start feeling the pressure; as will Cuba.” A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine, which by way of the Council on Foreign Relations serves unofficially as a kind of discussion forum of the US State Department, titled “The Eurasian Nightmare,” defended the thesis that Washington has no choice but to fight Russia and China at the same time. However, Gonzalez hints that the Biden administration’s strategy not only contemplates attacking the main front in the east (Moscow and Beijing), but also opens a front in the south—secondary, but important—against three Latin American countries that have challenged Washington the most in recent years (Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba). The southern front, however, may be broader than what the Colombia-born Juan Gonzalez makes clear.

On March 24, the commander of the US Armed Forces Southern Command, General Laura Richardson, testified before the US Senate Armed Services Committee. She said that although Russia is the “more immediate threat” in Latin America and the Caribbean, China would pose a diplomatic, technological, informational, and military challenge to the United States. Richardson had given similar testimony in the House of Representatives about two weeks earlier, where she also stated that without “US leadership,” Chinese influence in the region could “soon resemble the self-serving predatory influence it now holds in Africa.” She refers to the advance of the Belt and Road Initiative across the African continent since 2013, responsible for unprecedented tens of billions of dollars in Chinese investment in basic infrastructure (energy, telecommunications, ports, railroads, highways, etc.) in exchange for the natural resources China needs to feed its industry, which is responsible for 28.7 percent of all manufacturing produced in the world and consumed globally.

General Richardson’s statements are based on two principles. First, that the United States views Latin America and the Caribbean as its “backyard,” expressed in the Monroe Doctrine since 1823 and put into practice in countless military invasions, coups, and, more recently, hybrid wars against peoples and governments not aligned with Washington. Biden recently said that “Latin America is not our backyard,” but rather that it is “America’s front yard.” Latin Americans do not want to be anyone’s yard, whether front or back. Second, that the United States believes that the foreign policy of the region’s governments should be defined by Washington.

China in Latin America

In 2000, the US Congress set up the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which offers Congress its assessment of China on US national security. In November 2021, the commission’s report had an important chapter on the relations between China and the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean. The report worried about China’s support for what it termed “populist” governments from Argentina to Venezuela. It remarked on the increase in the region’s trade with China: from $18.9 billion (2002) to $295.6 billion (2020), in addition to its growing importance as a source of loans, financing ($137 billion from 2005 to 2020) and direct investments ($58 billion between 2016 and 2020). Due to this investment, China was able to assist the region in lessening the impact of the 2008 financial crisis; this investment created jobs (1.8 million between 1995 and 2016) and decreased poverty (falling from 12 percent in 2002 to 4 percent in 2018). Chinese vaccines rushed in during the pandemic, and Latin American commodity exports to China dampened the burden of the COVID recession.

The US-China Commission worried about the increased connections between China and the region in telecommunications and transportation networks. Huawei’s leadership in 5G in the region as well as Sino-South American partnerships in the development of satellites (21 launched in joint ventures, most of which were with Argentina) are offered as examples. The commission also expressed alarm that China’s control or influence over ports in the region, particularly in the Caribbean, since these could—in the future—be used for military purposes (although there is no indication of any such military use by China or by the Latin American and Caribbean states).

Washington’s Cold War

Washington’s hard-right elements reacted to this report with speed. In February 2022, Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, both Cuban-Americans, introduced the Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act of 2022 in Congress. This bill, drawing from the commission’s recommendations, proposes that the United States government directly challenge China’s role in the region. It characterizes the existence of China and Russia in the region as a “harmful and malign influence.” The bill is vague and short on details.

Dr. Evan Ellis, a professor at the US Army War College whose testimony was part of the commission’s report, wrote a report in January 2022 for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report—“Preparing for Deterioration of the Latin America and Caribbean Strategic Environment”—points to the revival “of a particular model of leftist authoritarian populism” in Latin America and the Caribbean. The new governments, he writes, have developed links with China to help them over the COVID recession. The United States, Ellis argues, cannot mobilize sufficient resources for investment in the region because the US Congress is divided and because the private sector is unwilling to take on this mission. He remains skeptical of US policy in the region, particularly as Chinese state-owned companies have been effectively investing in sectors such as construction, mining, energy, and finance.

Ellis recommends four immediate actions, many of them part of what is known as “hybrid war.” First, he says that Washington should promote a media narrative that denounces the leftist governments and their relations with China. Second, the United States should support protest movements against these governments. Third, the United States must deepen its alliances with regional elites. Fourth, the United States must apply sanctions to these left-leaning governments.

Two elections in the coming months could make things more difficult for the United States. In Colombia (May), the main ally of the United States in the region, leftist candidate Gustavo Petro could push the right wing out of power. In Brazil (October), Lula leads the polls against President Jair Bolsonaro.

Ellis suspects that the arrest and imprisonment of Lula had “deepened the radicalism of his leftist populist orientation.” In May 2021, Lula told the Chinese website Guancha: “It’s not possible that every time a Latin American country starts to grow, there is a coup. And in this coup, there is always someone from the US, there is always the US ambassador. It is not possible.”

Lula is not a radical, but if he is re-elected president of Brazil, he will bring a realistic attitude toward his country’s development. He has stressed the importance of rebuilding the Latin American and Caribbean regional bloc (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), both of which have been weakened in recent years. Chinese investment and trade are already a key part of Brazil’s plans for its future, but Lula also knows that this partnership must evolve, and Brazil needs to be more than an exporter of commodities to China.

Will the United States be able to roll back the influence of China and Russia on the region? Even Ellis does not feel confident about such an outcome. Along with Senators Rubio and Menendez, Ellis would prefer to destabilize the region than allow it to become a protagonist in a possible new world order.

Marco Fernandes is a researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a member of the No Cold War collective. He lives in Shanghai.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

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