Countering China in Latin America Requires a More Reliable U.S.

Arrival of Xi Jinping, President of China
Image: Flickr/G20 Argentina

By Scarlett Kennedy

In President Biden’s pivot to Asia, his administration has overlooked a critical factor in its success or failure—China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Latin America. Through the BRI, Beijing has invested heavily in Latin American energy and infrastructure, which has translated into stronger diplomatic, cultural, and military ties. In addition, China has become South America’s largest trading partner, and experts expect trade between China and Latin America to double by 2035. Although Mexico’s ties to China are not as pronounced as in South America, Chinese influence is also growing there.

The West has been highly critical of the BRI. Critics warn of shoddy environmental and labor standards within BRI projects, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been vocal with its concerns about predatory lending and lack of transparency. Similarly, the United States suspects China is using increased engagement to further its geopolitical goals. Although Biden has sought to counter this influence by partnering with Western countries in Build Back Better World (B3W), the program has failed to provide support strong enough to peer China’s BRI. 

A general lack of engagement on the part of the United States, amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, has left enough space for China to take the lead in Latin America.

When the pandemic hit Mexico, for example, China quickly stepped in as Mexico’s first and foremost supplier of vaccines. While the United States eventually participated in the distribution, it only supplied 17 percent of Mexico’s vaccines. In contrast, China provided 27 percent. Notably, China was the first to distribute vaccines, while the United States’ distribution of vaccines to Mexico was largely reactionary. 

The Biden administration launched B3W in June 2021 at the Group of Seven (G7) Leaders’ Summit. A year later, it has made little progress in its proclaimed goals of facilitating the recovery of recipient states while strengthening their resilience and combatting Chinese influence. One obstacle has been unfulfilled funding commitments. Another is lack of trust—recipient states view these initiatives as just another strategy to combat Chinese influence instead of genuine interest in deepening ties and improving relationships. 

The United States essentially turned its back on Latin America following the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror, and relations have deteriorated ever since. Latin America no longer views the United States as a dependable partner, and its support of U.S. policies has been waning. This year’s Summit of the Americas only served as a flagrant illustration of the United States’ diminishing influence in the region, with several important nations—Mexico among them—boycotting the summit over Biden’s refusal to invite Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

The summit could have been the perfect opportunity to hold these three nations accountable for human rights abuses and political transgressions while providing a forum to cooperate on important issues such as climate change and migration. Regardless of the nature of their government, all states in the region are essential actors vital to tackling shared problems. Ultimately, the summit was just another lost opportunity for the United States in Latin America.

Despite a long list of failures and recent history of neglect in the region, the United States can still turn things around. While the United States often undervalues the region, Latin America is strategically critical to the United States. Its importance is geographically apparent: The United States shares a 1,954-mile border with Mexico. But it is also a region of substantial potential economic growth and is home to more free-trade partners than anywhere else. Security in Latin America is also directly linked to the United States, making cooperation essential to addressing trafficking and migration. 

Even in light of recent democratic backsliding in some nations, Latin America has the highest proportion of democratic governments after Europe and North America. The region has made impressive progress in its institutions and the rule of law in the past twenty years. It is time for the United States to stop taking Latin America for granted. 

The United States should commit itself to become a leader of the B3W in Latin America. So far, the United States has attempted to pressure states out of deepening ties with China by warning them against the BRI without providing any viable alternative. The Biden administration should renew efforts toward B3W goals in Latin America and treat the region as a priority. Instead of viewing the B3W as a tool in zero-sum competition with China, it should use the program to make meaningful investments in the region while keeping in mind that any benefits resulting from either the B3W or the BRI will also benefit the United States. 

If the United States demonstrates energetic investment in the region, it can set an example by providing climate-friendly infrastructure with high labor standards. This higher standard will incentivize China to do the same, otherwise, it will eventually become a less attractive option. If, however, China does step up to the plate, the United States and recipient nations should cooperate with China to evaluate where the B3W and the BRI can complement each other to expedite and maximize advancements. This cooperation would demonstrate to Latin America that the United States is stepping in out of genuine interest in partnership—not just to combat China.

In addition to revamping efforts to invest in Latin American infrastructure, the United States should strive to holistically become an energetic partner to the region. Nations in the region are eager for more access to U.S. markets. Biden attempted to fulfill this demand when he announced the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity(APEP), but this announcement only disappointed states seeking concrete free trade deals with the United States.

While Congress should seize the opportunity APEP presents to strengthen economic ties in the Americas, the United States can go further by restoring the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), which established guidelines the president could abide by when negotiating trade agreements that would ensure congressional approval. It expired in June of last year when Biden neglected to renew it. Its renewal would allow trade agreements to be fast-tracked with fewer obstacles and the assurance that future administrations would not undo them.

The United States could expand the benefits of a renewed TPA if states showing commitment to becoming carbon-neutral were put on the priority list for new trade agreements, with B3W assisting them in achieving these goals. 

The United States should abandon the trend of taking Latin American nations for granted and treating them as pieces in the great power competition with China, as this attitude does not go unnoticed. Ultimately, the United States cannot strong-arm Latin America out of deepening ties with China. These states will increase cooperation and engagement wherever it is in their best interest. The United States, therefore, must present itself as the most reliable partner.

Scarlett Kennedy is a Political Science and Peace, War, and Defense major at UNC Chapel Hill and a Marcellus Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society. 

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