China and Latin America: A pragmatic embrace

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Ted Piccone July 2020

Ted Piccone examines the tightening embrace between China and the Latin American and Caribbean region. He highlights how China has emerged as a heavyweight in trade and investment and the implications for the region’s infrastructure and energy systems, as well as for its politics. China’s growing involvement in the region also is fueling rising competition between the United States and China. Piccone argues this dynamic should push the United States to up its game, not by implementing sanctions or attempting to compete dollar-for-dollar with Beijing, but rather by advancing a comprehensive strategy that positions Washington as the partner of choice for tackling major regional challenges.

Learn more about Global ChinaChina’s maturing relationship with the diverse nations of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), driven primarily by economic security interests, is facing new challenges as the struggling region copes with an intensifying wave of economic, public security, and public health crises. Eager to find new paths out of their chronic underdevelopment, the region’s governments largely welcomed Beijing’s entry into the hemisphere in the mid-2000s. The honeymoon of this first decade of growth, mainly in trade and investment ties, has morphed, however, into a more pragmatic embrace circumscribed by a mix of both popular and elite skepticism of the benefits of getting too close to Beijing. Concerns regarding China’s political, environmental, labor, and commercial practices, and their effects on certain constituencies in the region, are generating a pushback in some countries. Overall, however, the benefits of closer ties to China still seem to outweigh the costs and, given limited options amidst a serious economic downturn, LAC countries are likely to continue to invest in stronger relations with Beijing.

The United States, meanwhile, has woken up to the long-term threat China poses to its own longstanding role as the leading power in the region. Bipartisan views are converging on the need for a more robust response to China’s rise both globally and regionally. Although the Trump administration has failed to leverage these trends by setting the proper tone or substance for policies that would help swing relations back toward Washington, the deep roots of U.S.-Latin American relationships could nurture a revival of ties built on a consensus around democracy and human rights, fair trade, and more equitable and sustainable development. The United States should ramp up a more generous and sophisticated approach to its hemispheric partners so as not to cede more ground to China.