The coincidence between this week’s Latin American trips by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping highlight the undeclared competition between the U.S. and China in Latin America, and across the globe. The new competition is a struggle over the economic, legal, and political norms that will prevail as the global center of gravity shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the course of the twenty-first century.

The U.S.-China competition is not a resurrection of the cold war, where the U.S. and Soviet Union actively promoted their respective concepts for a global order. Rather, it is an unintentional, yet inevitable struggle.

Consistent with China’s millennial history, the principal goal of PRC is to advance Chinese national power, wealth and security. Although the PRC does not seek to impose a new ideology on the world, the mercantilist way that it is promoting its economic development, combined with its lack of commitment to international norms that it “did not create” means that “China’s rise” is wreaking havoc on the international system.

“China’s rise” is wreaking havoc on the international system.

In Latin America, while many governments and private interests have benefitted from the PRC’s entry into the region, that same engagement has indirectly undermined a range of U.S. policy objectives there, including the promotion of democracy, human rights, free trade, and the respect for contracts and rule of law.

Although the PRC has been careful not to associate itself with the “anti-imperialistic” rhetoric of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), efforts by China Development Bank and the International Commerce Bank of China to expand lending has been complimented by the interest within ALBA nations to free themselves from the constraints of borrowing from Western financial institutions. The resulting $50 billion loaned to Ecuador and Venezuela since 2007 has proved an important source of liquidity for those regimes, that have enabled them to sustain anti-Western policies and promote groups sympathetic to their cause throughout the region.

Similarly, the willingness of Chinese companies such as CNPC, Huawei, ZTE, and others to invest in Venezuela and Ecuador has made it easier for those regimes to nationalize industries and otherwise displace undesired “Western” corporations. Indeed, so long as ALBA governments have not taken action against Chinese business interests, the PRC’s indifference to their political systems has cleared the way for their devolution to ever less democratic practices, including the suppression of press freedoms and the prosecution of dissidents.

Chinese money and markets have undercut the U.S. policy agenda in financial accountability, human rights, and corruption.

Beyond ALBA, Chinese money and markets have undercut the U.S. policy agenda across the region in areas such as financial accountability, human rights, and corruption. Argentina was able to remain financially solvent in the years following its 2001 debt default, in part, because of its massive export-oriented soy industry, which sells 75 percent of its output to the PRC.

In Suriname, when China Dailan modernized the nation’s highway infrastructure, the human rights record of its President Desi Bouterse was never an issue. In Guyana, the Chinese government did not appear to be concerned that a key telecommunication contract given to Huawei appeared to be a vehicle to give a national telecommunications monopoly to the son of a close political ally of the country’s president, Bharrat Jagdeo.

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

The comparison between the current trip to Latin America by Chinese president Xi, and that of U.S. Vice-president Biden highlights how much has changed in the 8 years since the April 2004 U.S. Congressional hearings on China and Latin America, when U.S. administration officials took comfort in the degree to which the U.S. dominated China in terms of influence in the region.

In Rio de Janeiro, Biden talked about a U.S. “strategic partnership” with a Brazil that had already had one with the PRC since 1993, with China-Brazil trade exceeding U.S.-Brazil trade by an expanding margin. Nor could it be overlooked that Brazilian President Rousseff had traveled to China before her first visit to the U.S.

The Latin America agenda of Chinese President Xi Jinping also illustrates the confidence of China’s new “5th” generation  of leadership, with the choice of three destinations in close proximity to the United States illustrating how quickly the PRC has moved beyond the discourse of the previous administration “respect for the U.S. backyard.”

The trip to Trinidad and Tobago is the first visit by a Chinese President to the Caribbean, excepting his predecessor’s November 2008 trip to Cuba. The soft power of China in the Caribbean also was on display, as seven full heads of state from across the region made the pilgrimage to Trinidad for an audience with President Xi, as he held court in the Marriott Hotel in Port of Spain.

Of Xi’s three destinations, Mexico highlights how the Chinese and U.S. positions in the region are interdependent. For Mexican President Peña Nieto, engagement with the PRC is a way to differentiate his regime from the policies of his predecessor Felipe Calderon, including not only the war against criminal organizations, but also Calderon’s closeness to the United States.

Similarly, engagement with China through the “Pacific alliance,” Latin America’s hottest new sub-regional organization, shows Mexico progressively engaging with the “new economy of the Pacific,” while re-asserting a regional leadership role for Mexico, long a cornerstone of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

President Xi in the United States' back yard is a message.

Following his stops in Latin America, President Xi will meet with President Obama in California, where the two leaders are expected to talk about a range of global issues of mutual concern, from North Korea to the South China Sea, to cybersecurity, to perhaps Syria and the Middle East. As with previous great power summits, it is likely that Latin America will scarcely be mentioned. But nor will the trip be ignored.

The very trajectory traversed by President Xi to arrive in California, across a region once called the “U.S. Backyard” is, in itself, a message, that China has taken its seat across the table in the forum of geopolitics, and expects from the U.S. a dialogue of equals.

For more on this topic, read Critical Problems for New Chinese Presence in Latin America

Evan Ellis
About The Author Evan Ellis [Full Bio]
Dr. R. Evan Ellis is Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and author of over 80 works on Latin American security issues, including his new book, "China on the Ground in Latin America.”

China on the Ground in Latin America

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