General Wei Fenghe, minister of defense of the People’s Republic of China, met with his Brazilian counterpart on September 6, less than two months after the Asian nation’s minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi, also visited the country. These high-level meetings occur parallel to other major investment agreements, like a port in Peru that will be constructed by a Chinese company.
While Beijing continues its multidimensional approach to Latin America and the Caribbean, US leadership is notably missing. Without a doubt, the US continues to enjoy strong diplomatic influence, as well as significant defense and trade relations with its partners and allies throughout the Americas. But Washington lacks a grand strategy toward the Western Hemisphere, and Beijing is profiting from this situation.
Listing all of China’s recent initiatives toward the Americas would be too time-consuming, hence we will focus on some notable developments. For example, apart from Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Brazil in late July—during which he participated in the third China-Brazil Foreign Ministers’ Comprehensive Strategic Dialogue with Minister Ernesto Araujo—the Chinese official also visited Chile.
Regarding investment initiatives, the Peruvian government and the Chinese company Cosco Shipping Ports Limited signed an agreement in May for the company to construct a port in Chancay, north of Lima. Chinese companies similarly aim to build a port in Uruguay. Moreover, last year a Chinese consortium made up of “China Communications Construction Company and its unit China Harbour Engineering Company” were awarded a contract to build a bridge over the Panama Canal. As for trade, in late August Bolivia exported a shipment of 48 tons of beef to China—while the amount is insignificant for a market the size of China, it can become an important source of income for the landlocked Latin American country.
As for the Caribbean, a June 4 article in Barbados Today notes how, while the US continues to be the largest trading partner with the Caribbean, China is increasing its presence: “China is third only to the US and Trinidad & Tobago as Barbados’ largest import market, with an import share of 5.65 per cent in 2017, according to World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS) data.” China is also interested in Guyana because of its access to Northern Brazil and oil deposits.
Andrei Serbin Pont, an international affairs analyst and director of the think-tank CRIES, explained to the author that Beijing is increasingly “interacting more directly with state-level and municipal-level authorities, to avoid possible diplomatic issues with federal governments.”
Of course, Western Hemisphere governments are not blind to global geopolitics, and they are aware of previous deals with Beijing that have proven to be unfruitful. In an interview with the author, Ryan Berg, Latin America Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, explained that regional governments have certainly “heard the stories of predatory financing through the so-called Belt and Road Initiative; they fear job losses in their manufacturing sectors; and they know about China’s support for authoritarian regimes in the region, such as Venezuela and Nicaragua. Yet, having relations with the second-largest economy in the world is, for many countries in the region, too good of an opportunity to forgo.”
Where is Washington?
As for the US, high-level meetings with regional policymakers continue to occur. For example, Admiral Craig Fuller, commander of US Southern Command, which oversees US military operations in most of Latin America and the Caribbean, regularly visits the region. Case in point, he traveled to Colombia and Ecuador this past April. Latin American and Caribbean policymakers also regularly visit Washington, such as Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (though he is accused of drug conspiracy), Guatemala’s President-elect Alejandro Giammattei, and Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ernesto Araujo, just to name some high-profile visits in the last couple of months. US troops recently participated in the multinational exercises UNITAS in Brazil and Chile.
Alas, what is missing is both a grand strategy and an interest from President Donald Trump toward the region as a whole. Nowadays, the White House focuses on issues like immigration, trade, and the Venezuelan problem, and views the rest of the region through those prisms. Even more, President Trump appears to have lost interest in Venezuela and de facto President Nicolás Maduro, while his administration has suspended aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Unfortunately, the US has not created some kind of grand strategy to deal with Latin America and the Caribbean à la Theodore Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy or John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. Serbin argues that “the US forgot the region after 9/11, and it has been unable to re-strategize its presence to stop extra-regional powers from entering the region.”
With regards to the future, as Berg explains, “US policy tends to view problems as unique to specific countries and fails to see the broader networks that impact the entire region. However, a vision for a free, secure, and prosperous hemisphere requires an understanding of how many issues have become transnational. In other words, our policymakers need to learn how to connect the dots throughout the region better.” Any future US grand strategy toward the region must be “flexible and diversified,” not a Cold War-era plan, Serbin added.
It is in this situation that extra-hemispheric actors are thriving in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly China.
Out of 33 independent countries that make up Latin America and the Caribbean, the US enjoys cordial relations with the grand majority of them—the exceptions being Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. In other words, Washington’s problem is not a lack of partner and allies in the Western Hemisphere, as the overwhelming majority desires to be on good terms with the US.
Unfortunately, Washington’s concerns regarding other parts of the world, and its focus on solely a handful of issues relating to the Western Hemisphere, such as migration and Venezuela, are not enough to create a long-term grand strategy. Meanwhile, China’s strategy to the region is clear: create and secure allies by primarily focusing on trade, financial assistance, and a willingness to work with whatever government is in power in order to create the impression of a benevolent partner. This can help Beijing achieve other objectives, like reducing Taiwan’s pool of allies in the Western Hemisphere, and even reduce US influence in some countries.
Washington may not have forgotten Latin America and the Caribbean, but it does not know what to do with these two regions nowadays. Beijing does.