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As China Eyes Colombia, the United States Is AWOL

The country is a test case for Beijing’s encroachment in Latin America.

By , a managing director at IPD Latin America, and , the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy in Bogotá, Colombia.
Duque and Li in Beijing
Duque and Li in Beijing
Colombian President Iván Duque and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shake hands before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on July 31, 2019. Andy Wong - Pool/Getty Images

Governments around the world have launched major spending programs to stimulate their economies following the devastating impact of the pandemic. Latin America is no exception, and that is both a risk and an opportunity for the United States. If Washington wants to maintain its influence in the Americas and stave off Beijing’s accelerated encroachments into the region, it needs to focus on aiding the region’s economic recovery. The Biden administration is rightly pushing for global investments in infrastructure with its Build Back Better World program, a direct response to China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative. But passing a program in Congress is not enough. Washington needs a concrete game plan to implement the program and start making a dent into Chinese encroachment in Latin America.

One country where the risks and opportunities are particularly visible is Colombia. Backed by Beijing with state financial support, Chinese companies have been winning major infrastructure projects, including the long-awaited Bogotá metro, the Bogotá regional railway, many Colombian 4G and 5G infrastructure projects, and a major new gold mine in Antioquia. Many of these projects came after Colombian President Iván Duque’s visit to Beijing in 2019, when he promoted Chinese investment in Colombia. Seeking closer ties, he has hinted that Colombia may formally join the Belt and Road Initiative before he leaves office. If he does—possibly by decree—it would only make clear the gap the United States is not filling.

Hit hard by the pandemic, Colombia hasn’t had the luxury of being choosy about its partners. With high budget deficits and a rising national debt, the country lost its hard-fought investment grade credit ratings in 2021. And while Colombia is expected to report GDP growth of more than 9 percent last year, the emergence of the omicron variant threatens to impede economic activity once again. The need to grow the economy and increase employment is paramount with unemployment close to 11 percent in a workforce of nearly 25 million.

Governments around the world have launched major spending programs to stimulate their economies following the devastating impact of the pandemic. Latin America is no exception, and that is both a risk and an opportunity for the United States. If Washington wants to maintain its influence in the Americas and stave off Beijing’s accelerated encroachments into the region, it needs to focus on aiding the region’s economic recovery. The Biden administration is rightly pushing for global investments in infrastructure with its Build Back Better World program, a direct response to China’s strategic Belt and Road Initiative. But passing a program in Congress is not enough. Washington needs a concrete game plan to implement the program and start making a dent into Chinese encroachment in Latin America.

One country where the risks and opportunities are particularly visible is Colombia. Backed by Beijing with state financial support, Chinese companies have been winning major infrastructure projects, including the long-awaited Bogotá metro, the Bogotá regional railway, many Colombian 4G and 5G infrastructure projects, and a major new gold mine in Antioquia. Many of these projects came after Colombian President Iván Duque’s visit to Beijing in 2019, when he promoted Chinese investment in Colombia. Seeking closer ties, he has hinted that Colombia may formally join the Belt and Road Initiative before he leaves office. If he does—possibly by decree—it would only make clear the gap the United States is not filling.

Hit hard by the pandemic, Colombia hasn’t had the luxury of being choosy about its partners. With high budget deficits and a rising national debt, the country lost its hard-fought investment grade credit ratings in 2021. And while Colombia is expected to report GDP growth of more than 9 percent last year, the emergence of the omicron variant threatens to impede economic activity once again. The need to grow the economy and increase employment is paramount with unemployment close to 11 percent in a workforce of nearly 25 million.

Latin America hasn’t been a priority for the Biden foreign policy team, and Colombia even less so as Washington’s main concern remains migration from Mexico and Central America. It doesn’t help that relations between Duque and Biden are cool, not least because of open support by prominent members of Duque’s conservative Centro Democrático party for former U.S. President Donald Trump and Florida Republicans in the 2020 U.S. elections. Considering the critical role of the Latino vote in Florida, Democrats understandably condemned these actions as serious foreign election meddling.

Colombia is becoming more dependent on Chinese financing and contractors as a source of local job creation.

Last year’s deadly clashes between police and protesters across Colombia—which were condemned by the United Nations and others—didn’t help the government’s image in Washington, either. Since Joe Biden became president, however, Duque has been trying to atone. He quickly endorsed Biden’s international agenda, made new commitments to climate policies, and launched renewed efforts to implement the 2016 peace agreement between the government and Colombia’s main left-wing guerilla group.

Washington now has the opportunity to respond. Notwithstanding frictions, Colombia remains the strongest U.S. ally in Latin America, a region riven by political convulsions and subjected to China’s expanding geopolitical ambitions. Colombia’s domestic human right violations continue to impede democracy. The country ranks 14th among Latin American nations on Freedom House’s annual review of the state of democracy around the world. Nonetheless, this is a marked improvement over the violence and human rights abuses of only a few decades ago. And as democracy deteriorates elsewhere in the region, Colombia is among the few countries pushing Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela for greater democratization, promoting regional counternarcotics cooperation, and supporting the energy transition agenda. Colombia has also taken unprecedented steps to accept and integrate more than 1.9 million refugees fleeing an oppressive regime and collapsing economy in neighboring Venezuela. Colombia has served as a relief valve to the broader migration issues seen in the region, and many of those Venezuelans would otherwise be heading north.

Colombia’s climate policy goals coupled with its need for continued economic development call for large-scale infrastructure investment. The country aims to reduce deforestation to 100,000 hectares by 2025—half of current levels—and 50,000 by 2030. Lack of resources, geographical obstacles, inefficient institutions, and poor planning lie at the root of Colombia’s lack of quality roads, ports, canals, railroads, and navigable rivers. The past three Colombian administrations have made a heavy push to change that, including by enlisting Chinese investment. Under former President Alvaro Uribe, the country opened new oil and gas bid rounds. Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, promoted a large infrastructure package. Duque has continued on this course, expanding the initiative to include ports and railroads, while also pursuing renewable energy and hydrogen projects.

As the United States stands idly by, Colombia is becoming more dependent on Chinese financing and contractors as a source of local job creation. For that to change, part of the onus is on Colombia: While Bogota has improved the regulatory environment and public tender process, it still needs to make bid processes more accessible to international capital. Failure to do so will only continue to favor the Chinese model, which is less concerned about the quality and transparency of public tender processes. Greater U.S. bilateral support and funding will go a long way in opening the door for many U.S. private sector companies.

Moreover, the United States can help Colombia solidify the implementation of the peace agreement by funding infrastructure projects in areas of Colombia affected by conflict, which would help stabilize the country and unleash much broader economic development. All these would be big wins for Colombia, the region, and the United States. Failure to actively support Colombia’s ongoing infrastructure projects will only push it closer to China. Following its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and in light of current tensions with Russia and other powers, the United States could use a foreign policy win.

John Padilla is a managing director at IPD Latin America. Twitter: @John_IPDLatAm

Sergio Guzmán is the director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consultancy in Bogotá, Colombia. Twitter: @SergioGuzmanE

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