The Red Line
Episode 69. Chinese Influence in South America
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Most Latin American ambassadors tell the same story. Whilst every meeting with the US revolves around China, every meeting with the Chinese revolves around infrastructure. Beijing is making huge economic moves into South and Central America, but what is the US doing to counter it?
Margaret Myers is the director of the Asia & Latin America Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.
She established the Dialogue’s China and Latin America Working Group in 2011 to examine China’s growing presence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Myers also developed the China-Latin America Finance Database, the only publicly available source of empirical data on Chinese state lending in Latin America, in cooperation with Global China Initiative at Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center.
Evan Ellis is a research professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
His focus is on the region’s relationships with China and other non-Western Hemisphere actors, as well as transnational organized crime and populism in the region.
Dr. Ellis has published several books, including China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores (2009), The Strategic Dimension of Chinese Engagement with Latin America (2013), and China on the Ground in Latin America (2014).
Paul Angelo is a fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Angelo was formerly an International Affairs Fellow at CFR, and in this capacity, he represented the U.S. Department of State as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
A former active duty naval officer, Angelo was deployed to Colombia on three occasions, including serving as the U.S. Embassy’s principal liaison to the Colombian military and police in the highly conflictive Pacific coast.
Part 1: Much Needed Competition? (4:48)
Margaret Myers talks about the slow evolution of China's engagement with South America, driven in recent years by a need to secure markets and commodity supplies to fuel the domestic economy, including mineral resources such as copper and lithium.
Myers discusses how Belt and Road initiatives have faired in Central and South America compared to those in Africa and South East Asia, noting a mix of successes and failures and a plurality of factors contributing to those outcomes, before noting an increasing opposition to Chinese investments in some locations.
We discuss China's motivations in investment in the region beyond profit, including a focus on trade security via developing Pacific trade routes to avoid potential maritime hotspots, as well as growing its own exports of excess supply of Chinese goods and increasing influence in foreign policy matters with its trade partners.
Part 2: The Same Old Offer (26:15)
Evan Ellis discusses the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine on the US' relation with Latin America and how today's geopolitical situation creates parallels and complicated echoes in the US' modern bilateral relationships.
Ellis notes the turbulence caused by shifting US policy responses to Chinese influence in the region in recent years, leading to the current Biden Administration attempting to navigate not excluding China from the region while finding a way to more effectively compete with China.
We explore China's activity in the region being a careful balancing act operating in the US' perceived sphere of influence, and the growing prospect of China willing to be more assertive while acknowledging the practical difficulties of establishing a permanent physical presence in Central and South America. Panama's recent switch in acknowledgement from Taiwan to the PRC is indicative of the changing dynamic.
Part 3: Right Under Our Noses (52:03)
Paul Angelo posits that China is prioritising soft power arsenal in engaging with Latin America and the Caribbean, shaping its image as an important superpower focused on increasing its economic and diplomatic expansion in the region. He theorises this is primarily in the service of further diplomatically isolating Taiwan - seven of the 13 countries that still recognise Taiwan are within the region.
Angelo argues that compliancy on behalf of the US has led to a lack of proactive action to improve bilateral relations in the region and maintain US influence. He notes that the rhetoric around investing US money into Latin America have not been paired with feasible initiatives to date.
He argues the concern that a Chinese commercial facility established on the continent could later be converted or used for military purposes is a valid one, though China is certainly trying to avoid provocation and creating an environment in which the US might feel compelled to use force, a la Grenada.
He notes that to date its clear that Latin America would prefer not to choose between the US or China, but that it's likely three camps will emerge to create a divided region between those who favour China, those who favour the US, and those who remain committed to non-alignment.
The Red Line's Foreign Influence in Latin America Reading List:
We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better China's relationship and strategy in Latin America.
Transpacific Revolutionaries: The Chinese Revolution in Latin America
The China Triangle: Latin America's China Boom and the Fate of the Washington Consensus
The Political Economy of China-Latin America Relations in the New Millennium
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members Andreas Dieryck and Lg18ret29.