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The Summit of the Americas Was Meant To Counter China’s Influence. Instead, It Showed How Weak the U.S. Is

6 minute read

A gathering of Western Hemisphere leaders in Los Angeles this week gave President Joe Biden a rare and vital opportunity to mend burned bridges and counter growing Chinese influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Instead, analysts say, the Summit of the Americas has achieved neither.

Much has changed in the Americas in the nearly three decades since the U.S. last hosted the triennial summit. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton met with all but one of Western Hemisphere leaders, setting a tone for an era of cooperation and burgeoning trade deals. At the time, leaders were clamoring for a seat at the table with Washington.

Here, a look at how this year’s conference has turned out for Biden:

Tensions over the guest list

The event—which Biden said would showcase “bold ideas and ambitious actions”—was soured by snubs and diplomatic tensions before it even began. After Biden declined to invite the autocratic leaders of Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would boycott the summit.

But while regional leaders acknowledged these countries’ spotty human rights records, they also criticized their exclusion from the gathering. “When the United States attempts to exclude certain countries, ultimately it only serves to reinforce their [leaders’] actions at home,” Gabriel Boric, leftist president of Chile, said as he arrived in Los Angeles. Leaders of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Bolivia also declined to show up.

The hotly-anticipated first ever meeting between Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also almost didn’t happen, with reports that Bolsonaro was also planning to skip the summit.

For these reasons, Biden was worried that “no one would come to the party,” says Thomas Traumann, a political consultant and head of communications under former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Washington had in turn dispatched an adviser to convince the far-right leader to attend. Bolsonaro later insisted that Biden had agreed not to raise longstanding points of contention between the two men—including growing deforestation in the Amazon—a claim that Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, denied to U.S. reporters.

Just two days before Thursday’s meeting, Bolsonaro—a political ally of Donald Trump—once again spread false claims around the legitimacy of Biden’s 2020 election win. Biden didn’t publicly acknowledge the comments, as he was “desperate” to salvage the summit in the wake of Mexico’s snub, Traumann says.

“The need to get Bolsonaro there made the United States look weak,” says Christopher Sabatini, senior Latin American research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House. But at a time of waning U.S. influence in Latin America, Sabatini says Biden had few options. “They say war makes strange bedfellows—well, declining U.S. influence has made very uncomfortable bedfellows of Biden and Bolsonaro.”

Polls show that the leftist former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, who was jailed on corruption charges but later had his conviction quashed, is on track to beat Bolsonaro in the upcoming presidential election in October. (Some, including Lula, have called the corruption scandal a political witch hunt.) Although Lula will “be eager to collaborate on the Amazon and deforestation,” Traumann says, he will “be ever more resistant to U.S. influence.”

Read more: Lula Talks to TIME About Ukraine, Bolsonaro, and Brazil’s Fragile Democracy

Countering China’s rise

Analysts say the controversy over the summit’s guest list reflects a much larger issue—the U.S.’s general lack of engagement with Latin America that began under former President Donald Trump. “The U.S. didn’t do its diplomatic groundwork,” says Sabatini. U.S. investment has slowed in the region, which was badly hit by the pandemic. China, on the other hand “is filling the vacuum,” Sabatini says.

Trade between China and the Caribbean and Latin America has increased from $18 billion in 2002 to nearly $449 billion in 2021, making it the top trading partner of Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay. China has upped arms sales and engaged 21 countries in the region in its Belt and Road Initiative, a key tenet of Beijing’s foreign policy that uses infrastructure and investment programs to promote economic integration and boost its diplomatic clout.

“It’s a very pragmatic form of diplomacy where China is able to tally up more friendly governments in their column for votes in multilateral institutions,” Sabatini says. This form of soft power “helps China to remodel the international system a little bit more in its favor.” Evidence of that influence can be seen as more countries in Latin America sever ties with the self-ruling island of Taiwan in favor of Beijing—Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic changed their position after financial incentives from China.

Read more: China’s Effort to Become Latin America’s Most Important Ally

Although Biden sees China as its greatest “strategic competitor” on the geopolitical stage, the majority of his presidential term has been dominated by the war in Ukraine and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. His administration’s biggest policy proposal in Latin America—a $4 billion aid package for Central America that is intended to tackle the root causes driving migration towards the U.S.-Mexico border—has hit a wall in Congress.

A modest pact on migration

On the final day of the summit on Friday, a “Los Angeles Declaration” is expected to be announced. The pact will commit Latin American nations to host large numbers of migrants and refugees in exchange for more aid. According to U.S. officials who spoke ahead of its signing, the deal includes a joint approach to border protection and migration, new legal pathways for foreign workers, and financial support for host countries. The U.S. will also expand labor programs to offer more guest work permits to those coming from Central America.

“Each one of our countries has been impacted by unprecedented migration, and I believe it’s our shared responsibility to meet this challenge,” Biden said on Thursday.

But the principles of the deal—arguably the biggest achievement of the summit—are based on policies that Ecuador and Colombia are already following. The two countries, led by conservative-leaning governments, have taken in the largest share of the 6 million Venezuelans who have fled their homes in recent years amid a political and socio-economic crisis.

“In a year and a half in office, Biden and [Vice-President] Kamala Harris haven’t done much on immigration,” Traumann says. “This agreement is the kind of thing really done only for photo opps.”

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