US policymakers and military officials have raised concerns about China’s growing presence in Latin America while Washington shifted its focus toward the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, a think tank Council on Foreign Relations said. Over the past two decades, China has developed close economic and security ties with many Latin American countries, including Brazil and Venezuela. But Beijing’s growing sway in the region has raised concerns in Washington and beyond.
China is South America’s top trading partner and a major source of both foreign direct investment and lending in energy and infrastructure, including through its Belt and Road Initiative. It has invested heavily in Latin America’s space sector and has strengthened its military ties with several countries, particularly Venezuela. Washington is wary of all these developments, and critics say Beijing is leveraging its economic might to further its strategic goals. “We are losing our positional advantage in this Hemisphere and immediate action is needed to reverse this trend,” argued Admiral Craig S. Faller, the former head of U.S. Southern Command, in 2021.
China’s role in Latin America has grown rapidly since 2000, promising economic opportunity even while raising concerns over Beijing’s influence. China’s state firms are major investors in the region’s energy, infrastructure, and space industries, and the country has surpassed the United States as South America’s largest trading partner, as per the think tank. Beijing has also expanded its diplomatic, cultural, and military presence. Most recently, it has leveraged its support in the fight against COVID-19, supplying the region with medical equipment, loans, and hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.
But the United States and its allies fear that Beijing is using these relationships to pursue its geopolitical goals, including the further isolation of Taiwan, and to bolster authoritarian regimes. U.S. President Joe Biden, who sees China as a “strategic competitor” in the region, is seeking ways to counter its growing sway. In 2000, the Chinese market accounted for less than 2 per cent of Latin America’s exports, but China’s rapid growth and resulting demand drove the region’s subsequent commodities boom. Over the next eight years, trade grew at an average annual rate of 31 per cent, reaching a value of USD 180 billion in 2010.
By 2021, trade totalled USD 450 billion, and economists predict that it could exceed USD 700 billion by 2035. China is currently South America’s top trading partner and the second-largest for Latin America as a whole, after the United States. Latin American exports to China are mainly soybeans, copper, petroleum, oil, and other raw materials that the country needs to drive its industrial development. In return, the region mostly imports higher-value-added manufactured products, a trade some experts say has undercut local industries with cheaper Chinese goods. Beijing has free trade agreements in place with Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru, and 20 Latin American countries have so far signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Talks on a free trade agreement with Ecuador began in February 2022.
China’s focus on soft power–including strengthening cultural and educational ties–has helped Beijing build political goodwill with local governments and present itself as a viable alternative partner to the United States and European states. Venezuela became the region’s top purchaser of Chinese military hardware after the U.S. government prohibited all commercial arms sales to the country beginning in 2006. Between 2009 and 2019, Beijing reportedly sold more than USD 615 million worth of weapons to Venezuela.
Bolivia and Ecuador have also purchased millions of dollars worth of Chinese military aircraft, ground vehicles, air defense radars, and assault rifles. Cuba has sought to strengthen military ties with China, hosting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for several port visits. Despite U.S. warnings against using Huawei equipment, which policymakers say leaves countries vulnerable to Chinese cyber threats, Argentina and Brazil, among others, depend on it for their cellular networks. (ANI)
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