The Latin America of today looks more like China’s front garden than America’s backyard. In only 15 years, China has become the region’s largest official creditor, its most enthusiastic investor, and its fastest growing trade partner, on track to surpass the United States in the next 15 years.
Recently, China’s silent invasion of Latin America has expanded from a focus on access to critical natural resources to effectively reconfiguring the region’s economic architecture and environment—progressively taking control of strategic physical and digital infrastructure, value chains, energy sources, and telecommunication networks. This may seem like good news for Latin America’s development in terms of investment, technology, and public financing, if not for the less auspicious effects of China’s footprint on the rule of law, democracy, and national autonomy across the region. In the coming years, Latin America may very well transition from democratic recession to democratic depression.
It’s gotten to this point because of decades of Western indifference toward the region, the withdrawal of the U.S. from the multilateral order, and ambiguous U.S. foreign policy that reflects the country’s loss of self-confidence abroad. Emblematic of the negligible attention the U.S. has given the region are the 12 unoccupied U.S. ambassadorships in Latin American countries and the paltry five times American Presidents have visited the region over the course of the last decade (compared to the 10 trips Xi Jinping has made despite the greater distance).
Meanwhile, the U.S. appears to have no plan to counter China’s growing footprint in Latin America. The Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP), launched by President Joe Biden at the Summit of the Americas last year and which has only 11 member-countries to date, constitutes a promising tool, and the Americas Act, a bill proposed by Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, is an audacious package of measures to counteract the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in the region. But no known official document outlines or mentions anything even close to resembling an overarching strategy to address this issue.
This is a historic, high-stakes opportunity for the Biden Administration to design a serious approach to counter China’s corrosive footprint in Latin America and potentially change the looming fate of the Western Hemisphere in the coming decades. There’s already growing interest in Sino-Latin American relations in Washington—among international organizations, business associations, academia, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But to seize the moment and translate wishful thinking into reality, leadership from the White House must commit to several key principles—10 commandments, if you will—in its relations with the region, as a precondition for policy reform.
1. Be honest. The one value the U.S. must put front and center when developing a plan is honesty. The policymaking process should be supported by authentic political will and not driven by interest groups. Moreover, the U.S. needs to humbly acknowledge that Latin America was taken for granted for decades. It should revalorize the region’s strategic importance in the hemisphere and recognize that the old understandings and assumptions of how things worked have changed dramatically in the subcontinent. Latin American politics today is a complex byproduct of sustained economic growth coupled with persistent inequality, greater migration-induced family disruptions, political organizations, and ever more extreme political fragmentation. Also, crucially, in the modern multipolar world, regional elites have, for better or worse, increasingly learned to engage with powerful nations other than the U.S. The U.S. must come to grips with the Latin America of today to be in a position to develop an effective plan to neutralize Beijing’s intentions for the region.
2. Don’t go it alone. The West—that is, both the U.S. and its allies—should collectively lead any new approach toward the region. Joint initiatives will prompt more policy options and resources and would dilute any existing animosity in Latin America toward the U.S. The region’s lukewarm acceptance of the APEP, whose membership numbers less than half of those in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, is testament to the legacy of past slights that have left countries suspicious of a U.S. that is simply self-serving.
3. Open your arms. Any strategic plan should not alienate countries. Participation should not be contingent on country income, size, or the ideology of the party in power. The fiasco of the 2022 Summit of the Americas, with 12 Latin American Presidents absent, should serve as a cautionary tale against convening a dialogue that feels exclusive at the onset.
4. Be realistic in what you ask for. Requests of Latin American partners should match the region’s interests rather than only those of the U.S., as has traditionally been the case. Incentives and conditions to join in the strategic plan should be appealing and reasonable. For example, asking Latin American countries to formally recognize Taiwan, avoid participation in regional forums the U.S. considers “unfriendly,” or take specific measures to end existing Chinese influence in their borders may be a bridge too far. A reality check on each country’s available resources, institutional capacity, and economic considerations is a must.
5. Get your house in order. You can’t build with broken tools. In formulating a strategic plan, the U.S. needs to think about the whole institutional arrangement for interagency coordination and effective execution of resources. Reforms of the Inter-American Development Bank, Organization for American States, and Development Financial Corporation, to start, are imperative.
6. Talk to the real power. Since adaptative change should be structural and sustainable, the plan’s primary audience should be the region’s elites—comprised of both longstanding and emerging key stakeholders such as the private sector, technocrats, academia, civil society organizations, and youth. While transitory governments are important counterparts, the U.S.-Latin America strategy should transcend temporary officeholders, particularly given the high volatility and unpredictability of the region’s elections.
7. Look at the local level. The U.S. needs to increase its diplomatic presence at the subnational levels, too, to better understand local needs and fears. Doing so may reveal the valuable political appreciation that can be received in return for genuine attention.
8. Be patient. Although expeditious gains may be necessary politically, the plan’s raison d’être must be based on the long view. As such, intermittent objectives should be framed as strides toward a long-term strategic goal. Furthermore, focus should be on addressing the root causes of problems in the region, not their symptoms. Meaningful change takes time. Rebuilding Latin America’s trust and credibility in the U.S. will be a process. It has taken China 15 years to gain a foothold in the region, and the U.S. should expect to invest continued efforts over time.
9. Learn by doing. Policymaking should be contextualized, use a varied set of tools, incorporate lessons learned, and build in the flexibility to adjust as needed.
10. Don’t be naïve. China is in Latin America to stay. The transformation of the Chinese economy is already ongoing, and Latin America’s strong demand for funding, given growing concerns about public debt, will only serve to boost China’s footprint in the region in the future.
The U.S. and Latin America were once like an old married couple, their relationship comfortable, if flawed; their bickering no indication of weakness in what they shared: a set of values and principles that united the family. But now, that romance is being challenged by a charming outsider, and Latin America, long taken for granted, is tempted. The only way to rebuild the marriage is through honest dialogue, mutual respect, accountability, and transparency.
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