China’s New Backyard

Does Washington realize how deeply Beijing has planted a flag in Latin America?


For the past decade, Washington has looked with discomfort at China’s growing interest in Latin America. But while Beijing’s diplomats bulked up on their Spanish and Portuguese, most U.S. policymakers slept soundly, confident that the United States still held a dominant position in the minds of its southern neighbors. In April 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing on China’s influence in the hemisphere and concluded that the U.S. position in the Western Hemisphere was much stronger than China’s and, moreover, that Beijing’s economic engagement in the region did not present a security threat. But that was 2005.

In late May of this year, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden went to Latin America for a three-day, three-country tour, Beijing was hot on his heels. Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Trinidad and Tobago just days after Biden left: Whereas Trinidad and Tobago’s prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, characterized her discussions with Biden as "at times brutal," Xi’s stop in Trinidad and Tobago included the unveiling of a children’s hospital funded with $150 million from the Chinese government, discussion of energy projects, and meetings with seven Caribbean heads of state. Xi’s itinerary took him to Costa Rica and Mexico on June 4 to 6, but his shadow followed Biden all the way to Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, Biden referred to a new "strategic partnership" between the United States and Brazil, yet his words’ impact was undercut by the strategic partnership that Brazil has had with China since 1993 and the much-publicized fact that China overtook the United States as Brazil’s largest trading partner in 2009 (trade between China and Brazil exceeded $75 billion in 2012). It’s not an accident that Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff made a state visit to China in April 2011, prior to paying one to the United States.

Make no mistake: China is now a presence in the region. Xi’s trip to Trinidad and Tobago is only the second visit by a Chinese president to the Caribbean — his predecessor, Hu Jintao, visited communist Cuba in November 2008 — but China and the Caribbean’s economic and political ties have been growing rapidly. On this trip, Xi promised more than $3 billion in loans to 10 Caribbean countries and Costa Rica. Xi’s choice of three destinations near the United States, followed by a "shirt-sleeves" summit with U.S. President Barack Obama on June 7 and 8 at the Sunnylands resort in California, sends a subtle message that the new Chinese leadership seeks to engage the United States globally as an equal — without the deference shown in the past to the United States in countries close to its borders.

Ironically, it’s the Latin American country closest to the United States where Xi might be able to make up the most ground. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s engagement with the Chinese president, both at the April summit in Boao, China, and this week in Mexico City, allow him to differentiate himself from his pro-U.S. predecessor, Felipe Calderón. Similarly, Mexico’s role in forming the Pacific Alliance, a new subregional organization built around a group of four pro-market, pro-trade countries (Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru) allows Mexico to reassert a leadership role in the Americas, relatively independent of the United States.

The challenges arising from China’s global engagement should not, however, be confused with the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that characterized the Cold War, in which each side actively promoted different, competing concepts for a global order. China does not seek to impose a new ideology on the world, yet the mercantilist way in which it promotes its economic development, combined with its lack of commitment to international norms that it didn’t create, makes it more difficult for the United States to conduct business and pursue policy goals in Latin America and other parts of the world.

Consider China’s ties with the eight countries that make up the leftist Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). Since 2007, China has loaned $50 billion to Ecuador and Venezuela, the alliance’s two largest countries, giving them the financial wherewithal to continue sustaining anti-U.S. policies at home and to advance their cause in the region — from funding oil alliance Petrocaribe, to setting up teleSUR and Banco del Sur, to sending suitcases of cash to politicians in Argentina. And the willingness of Chinese companies to invest in Venezuela and Ecuador has made it easier for those countries’ regimes to nationalize industries and displace undesired Western corporations. China’s indifference to those countries’ political systems has cleared the way for their devolution to less democratic practices, from the legal actions taken against the leadership of El Universo and other Ecuadorean media, to forcing RCTV off the air in Venezuela and persecuting Venezuelan opponents from Manuel Rosales (now in exile) to former armed forces head Raúl Baduel (now incarcerated). China’s no-strings-attached investments enable the regimes to thumb their noses at Western institutions and prevailing international norms regarding respect for contracts, freedom of expression, democracy, and human rights.

The challenge to Washington from China’s presence in the region also extends beyond economics and policy objectives. The U.S. Defense Department’s critical posture regarding Chinese cyberattacks is a reminder that hostilities between the United States and China, though highly improbable and undesirable, are not unthinkable. In such a conflict, China-operated ports, airports, telecommunications infrastructure, and other parts of the Chinese commercial presence in Latin America would represent potential assets in a global asymmetric warfare campaign against the United States.

It is ironic that, after his meetings in Mexico, Xi will meet with Obama in California. But for the difficulty in getting Xi’s entourage of Chinese luxury cars across the border, he could almost have driven the last leg of the journey. But perhaps that is the point: It has taken a leader coming from the other side of the world to remind the U.S. leadership that Latin America is connected to the United States, in physical, economic, and human terms. Thus, what happens in the region is of profound importance for the United States and, hopefully, will be at least one of the topics of conversation between President Xi and President Obama after they shake hands at Sunnylands.

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