China and the United States have different diplomatic approaches to Latin America. China prioritizes trade and investment in its negotiations with Latin American states, whereas the US focuses on China’s activities in the region. The United States’ obsession with Chinese affairs in the region rather than with Latin American political aspirations reflects its historically failed approach to Latin America in past decades. While the US and the West feel their grip loosening on their Southern neighbours, they have not taken action to rectify their policies and have instead continued to produce similarly unproductive results. Various Latin American countries have re-initiated diplomatic and trade relations with China, and have gradually turned away from US and Western dependency

In the past, the US has been associated with practices that have severely harmed the region and specific countries, including Guatemala, Chile, and Cuba. This includes the orchestration of coups to depose and replace elected left-wing leaders with puppet dictators, and the mass extermination of so-called leftists. For example, the US was recently found to be behind the so-called coup in Bolivia in 2019, which invalidated a democratic victory by leftist Indigenous incumbent Evo Morales and put in place Jeanine Áñez, who is unapologetically anti-Communist and right-wing. In 2021, Áñez was placed behind bars on charges of terrorism, sedition, and conspiracy. This pattern of American interference needs to be reformed if the US wants to promote its values and interests in the region and promote genuine security, liberty, and prosperity.

The Tide is Turning

Reflecting this trend, 77% of Chileans were said to have a positive view of China in 2019. In the same poll, only 61% viewed the United States favourably. Similarly, another poll conducted in 2018 showed that, in Mexico, it was 57% against 43%. In Argentina, it was 51% against 45%, and, in Peru, 59% to 56%. In Venezuela, where the United States has concentrated its diplomatic efforts in recent years, China still edged out the US by 63% to 62%. On the other hand, Colombia, Brazil, and some Central American countries continue to broadly support the US, since they are led by generally centre-right or right-wing and pro-capitalist governments. Yet, China has ramped up its trade and investment numbers in those countries, too, and trends indicate that popular opinion towards China is gradually growing in these countries.

It’s About Soft Power

To find the root of the problem, one needs to look no further than trade and investment. When you financially and economically improve people’s quality of life, they might not hate you as much! Between 2002 and 2019, China’s trade with Latin America increased from a meager $18 billion per year to $316 billion. The relationship seems reciprocal, given that the amount spent on imports and exports is relatively equivalent

This is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative , which incorporates Latin America as a major region in which to increase trade and investment, build up political and economic leverage, and counter US and Western influence. The largest partners have been, not coincidentally, Colombia, Brazil, and Central American countries, where support for the US has been higher than in other Latin American nations. The BRICS group partnership has also allowed China to get closer to Brazil and boost its trade and investment efforts there. 

Moreover, China’s economic efforts in the region have had an overall positive effect on the region’s part in the global fight against climate change. Satellites to track deforestation were sold to Brazil, China organized and took part in various climate summits, and China has been the largest investor in Mexico’s fast-developing clean energy markets. However, some controversial projects, like providing oil-backed loans to Ecuador and funding Peru’s Amazon Waterway project, have somewhat hampered perceptions of China’s climate change impact in the region. 

COVID as an Opportune Moment

During the COVID-19 pandemic, China fully capitalized on a fractured West and a polarized and weaker US to ramp up its outreach to Latin America. Russian and Chinese manufacturers remain the top sources of COVID vaccines in a number of Latin American countries. Millions of CoronaVac doses have been distributed in Brazil, the country hardest hit by COVID in the region. Despite their mixed efficiency and the rejection of China’s vaccines from Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, CoronaVac doses were received quite favourably by both the country’s government and local populations.

Winning the Culture War

This push by China has resulted in some gains in the region. At the local level, China has successfully pierced through Latin American media, civil society, and cultural institutions. CGTN, a state-run media company in China, launched a Spanish affiliate, CGTN-Espanol, aimed at Latin American audiences. A number of Confucius institutes, meant to teach Chinese language and societal values, were also built in Latin American countries in recent years. Moreover, local students were funded to participate in exchange and study abroad programs at reputable Chinese universities. Some social media personalities, like the YouTube channel Mexicanos en China (which has 75k subscribers at the time of publication), were funded to participate in these opportunities and provided Beijing with free promotion to local and foreign audiences. 

A Paper Tiger?

This strategy is not without its flaws, however, as China has been characterized as pursuing “debt trap diplomacy,” which involves increasing the dependency of Latin American countries on China for their economic and political development. Yet, China has not engaged in a mass-lending program in Latin America as it has in Africa and Asia. China has instead focused on trade and investment to grow its leverage and influence. Still, China, despite its minimal share of 0.004 percent in the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), has taken a larger role in the bank as of late. Chinese companies have won over $1.7 billion in IDB contracts in the last ten years. 

A Crisis of Opportunity

The United States, Canada, and the West need to adopt this diplomatic strategy more broadly if they want to remain a major force in Latin America. The way to solve this conundrum is quite simple: change tactics and adopt what works. Otherwise, nations previously forced to adopt Western values and interests through violence and corruption will turn to more compassionate alternatives, such as those offered by China. We cannot blame local populations for turning to a foreign country – no matter how reprehensible and badly intentioned – that delivers necessary economic and financial support at times of crisis and uncertainty. We should replicate this strategy and engage in more compassionate, leverage-building, and positive diplomacy with Latin American countries. The recent vaccine and broader diplomatic outreach undertaken by the Biden administration is a good starting point, although it might prove to be a little too late. When a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic arises, we should look to support vulnerable communities around the world, as many of which might not have the adequate support and resources to deal with them. The geopolitical return on investment would be significant. 

No Value Compromise

We should also stop compromising our values for temporary economic or geopolitical gain, no matter how pragmatic they might seem. By that, I mean we should stop supporting vicious and fascist leaders because it might be good for power projection, geopolitical alliances, or foreign investment. One needs to look no further than the Cold War to see how the West has deliberately deposed democratically-elected leaders with nationalist, socialist, or even mildly reformist tendencies. Pinochet, Stroessner, Castillo Armas, Branco, the Somozas, and Banzer are some prominent examples. If we are serious about promoting liberal democratic values, we need to back up our rhetoric with solid, concrete, and long-term policies. This means supporting local populations through free and fair trade with community consultation, sending direct aid to vulnerable communities, allowing companies, NGOs, and journalists to operate locally, and funding certain infrastructure and socio-economic projects that would benefit them in the short- and long-run. Then, and only then, they might start to see some benefit in working with us. 

Joseph Bouchard

Joseph is a Senior Writer with Spheres of Influence, covering geopolitics, crime, and democracy in the Western hemisphere. He has spent over a year in Latin America, notably working as a freelance journalist...