China challenges US influence in Latin America

Beijing moves into Washington’s backyard with multi-billion-dollar economic deals and high-tech promises

China aims to move into Washington’s backyard with a multi-billion-dollar economic and high-tech package that could change the face of Latin America.

President Xi Jinping’s plans would also extend Beijing’s diplomatic and, potentially, military reach, challenging the United States’ historic influence in the region.

Senior Chinese officials reportedly outlined their ambitions following a summit with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or CELAC, during a virtual summit last month.

“The Chinese don’t say, ‘We want to take over Latin America,’ but they clearly set out a multidimensional engagement strategy, which, if successful, would significantly expand their leverage and produce enormous intelligence concerns for the United States,” Evan Ellis, a US Army War College professor and a former State Department staffer, told the Washington Examiner.

At the core of China’s Latin American “strategy” will be “political and security cooperation” with deepening involvement in high-tech spheres such as cyberspace and artificial intelligence. “Space science, satellite data sharing” and “infrastructure” development are other areas touched on, as well as nuclear energy.

Less than a week after the conference, Nicaragua severed ties with Taiwan on December 9, switching its diplomatic allegiance to Beijing, Newsweek magazine reported.

The decision came close on the heels of leftist Honduran presidential candidate Xiomara Castro’s victory. Part of her election campaign was a promise to establish formal relations with Beijing.

While the country’s first female president has acknowledged that corruption has contributed to the nation’s problems, it is no secret that US involvement in Latin America has stifled growth for political gain – a fact that plays into President Xi’s hands.

Chinese investment

In 2019, Washington successfully prevented a major Chinese investment in an El Salvador port after San Salvador severed ties with Taipei. But China refused to back down.

Now, La Unión, a deep-water port in the Gulf of Fonseca with access to the Pacific Ocean, will be upgraded and expanded. There are already moves to establish special economic zones, which will benefit Chinese exporters, port operators, logistics firms and construction companies.

But even if Beijing does not seek sovereign control over La Unión, China’s commercial management of the port and its political influence in the country may well open the door to a regular, if not permanent, Chinese naval presence in El Salvador.

“Chinese influence is global, and it is everywhere in this hemisphere, and moving forward in alarming ways,” Admiral Craig Faller, the head of US Southern Command, warned in an interview with the NBC news network.

“China is pursuing multiple portals in this hemisphere,” he continued, referring to seaports, airports and other transit hubs.

La Unión port in El Salvador could give China a significant economic foothold. Photo: Handout

“Depending on the day, count them as 40 or so. And as I look at where they’re focused strategically – West Coast, East Coast, South Panama, Caribbean – I absolutely can see a future where these ports will become a hub for [China’s] growing blue water Navy,” Faller said.

The Sino-CELAC forum was launched in 2011 under the auspices of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He wanted an assembly to rival the Organization of American States and challenge US influence in Latin America, the Washington Examiner reported.

It now stands to furnish President Xi with the ideal platform to gather a coalition of leaders fed up with American foreign policy.

Last month, China’s exploitation of ideological fault lines in the region was made apparent when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega closed the Taiwanese Embassy in favor of a new relationship with Beijing.

It came just weeks after the Organization of American States General Assembly rebuked him for overseeing elections that “were not free, fair, or transparent.”

Powerful and wealthy

“Without the mandate that comes with a free and fair election, Ortega’s actions cannot reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people, who continue to struggle for democracy and the ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at the time.

The US statement was ironic.

Experts and academics have argued that when Latin American politicians or activists have come forward on behalf of its dispossessed, Washington has intervened on the side of the powerful and wealthy to help crush them, The Guardian media group in London reported.

For example, Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’ reformist president, was seized by the country’s military in 2009, and flown to Costa Rica, still in his pajamas. 

Inexplicably, the administration of Barack Obama refused to call it a coup.

At the time, Zelaya had been trying to resolve conflicts over land, that pitted local campesinos against the powerful agro-industry. After the coup, that conflict was militarized and more than a hundred campesinos were killed.

Organized crime spread through the nation’s institutions and the murder rate soared. Within a year, Honduras was the most violent country in the world not actually at war.

US-trained paramilitary squads have operated in Central America. Photo: Handout.

Indeed, this policy, allegedly backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and spanning decades, has bred suspicion and resentment – fertile ground for China to move in.

American officials call it a “geostrategic approach,” where if they deem that they need something necessary for their investment purposes, Beijing orders it to happen.

“The region is ripe for investment, for engagement, with a partner of China’s size in different sectors,” Mateo Haydar, of the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner

“That threat is growing, and it’s a different kind of threat than what we saw with the Soviet Union [in Latin America during the Cold War],” Haydar said.

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada has expressed interest in joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the overseas infrastructure project that American officials regard as a predatory lending scheme to “buy” an empire.

Rolled out in 2013, these New Silk Road superhighways connect China with 70 countries and 4.4 billion people across Asia, Africa, parts of Europe and Latin America in a maze of infrastructure projects.

Marshall Plan

On paper, it looks like Beijing’s answer to the Marshal Plan, which funded the rebuilding of Western Europe after the destruction of World War II.

But in practice, there are serious concerns about the BRI blueprint. AidDate research has shown that China has saddled lower- and middle-income nations with liabilities of US$385 billion, ChinaFactor reported last month.

Alarmed by Beijing’s growing influence across four continents and allegations of “debt-trap diplomacy,” the US and the European Union have launched new global projects.

Up to ?300 billion, or $340 billion, has been earmarked to bankroll the EU’s Global Gateway strategy to counter the Belt and Road program. Another alternative will be the multi-billion-dollar Build Back Better World plan, unveiled by US President Joe Biden.

For their part, Latin American nations have borne the brunt of a violent and indifferent US foreign policy that has destroyed economies, functioning democracies and left massively militarized societies.

Nobody is saying it publicly, but it is clear the US is paying for its sins in the region, and China stands to benefit in a big way.

Some might even say, justice has been served. For now, anyway.