Written by Lorenzo Di Muro.
Latin America is undergoing a process that could redefine the geopolitics of the region. Uninvolved in the conflicts of the Middle East, West-Russia competition, Islamic terrorism, north-eastern Asia and the South China Sea, the continent is in the midst of a geopolitical vacuum: devoid of major contexts for regional influence, as well as of any grand strategy capable of merging compelling parts of the Americas.
The inclusion of Latin America in the OBOR and particularly the proposed Be-Oceanic Railroad (TORR) could be a transformative factor in the continental geopolitics
After the Cold War and 9/11, the US focus has shifted to the Middle East, while significant political and economic transformations took place in the international arena. These transformations haven’t spared Latin America. The gradual erosion of the “unipolar moment”, along with the region’s domestic policies and the rise of China, changed the face of key countries in the region. Trying to get out of the shadows of their northern neighbour, Latin American countries – notably Brazil and Venezuela – pursued a relatively independent foreign policy and established a sphere of influence through the creation of regional (MERCOSUR, UNASUR, ALBRA, PETROCARIBE, and to a lesser extent the Pacific Alliance) and international association bodies (such as the BRICS). Such states have also witnessed the establishment of political relations with important centres of power in the world. Perhaps most notable is the continent’s growing relationship with Asian powers like China.
As a result, in recent years an academic debate has erupted over the loss of US hegemony across the Americas, particularly while the so called “pink tide” brought to power leftist governments in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela among others.
Recently, we’ve witnessed a shift with respect to the alignment of parties and movements. The “pink tide” typical for many Latin American countries has been hampered by the new market conjecture, the global financial crisis, and a revival of centrist and rightist parties, not without US support. In countries like Honduras, Paraguay, Guatemala, Вrazil, Argentina, Peru, Paraguay, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Chile, in the last few years the centre-right came back to power, making it possible for several experts to point out a ‘turn to the right’.
Given this background, President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel his visit at the Summit of the Americas in order to plan and conduct a military strike on Syria reveals Washington’s approach to Latin America. The presence of the US commander in chief at the meeting held in Lima between 12 and 13 April would have marked the first time he went beyond the southern border as US president after a harsh start.
The United States’ comparatively weak footing in the Americas is undoubtedly attributable to long-term trends (a retreat from the region in terms of political and economic influence), but Trump’s missteps could lead to a new low, from trade protectionism and US withdrawal from the TPP to the hostile rhetoric against countries such as Mexico and threats of military intervention in Venezuela.
As US Southcom Commander Admiral Kurt Tidd puts it, “although other regions may figure more prominently on U.S. foreign policy and national security agendas, Latin America and the Caribbean is the region most connected to our own society, prosperity, and security.” According to Tidd, there are also strategic challenges to be addressed by the White House: “while threat networks and potential crises are immediate concerns… over the past decade, China, Russia and Iran have established a greater presence in the region. These actors have capitalised on the perception that the US is disengaging from the region. Our leadership is weakened not because China or Russia offer compelling alternatives, but because it’s not always clear to our network of allies and partners what’s important to us.”
This perception has been confirmed by the remarks of then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Latin American diplomatic tour in February 2018, which took place in currently pro-US states such as Peru, Colombia, Argentina. He described the Monroe doctrine as being “as relevant today as it was the day it was written,” and criticised the region’s relationship with “imperialist” China. According to Tillerson, “today China is getting a foothold in Latin America. It is using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit.” Tillerson took aim at China’s economic approach, which has been centred on acquiring access to commodities from countries such as Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Peru. “Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people,” he stated, “China’s state-led model of development is reminiscent of the past.. It doesn’t have to be this hemisphere’s future.”
Latin America’s swing to the left provided fertile ground for advancing China’s “harmonious rise” strategy, serving its economic purposes and reinforcing its position in the Western Hemisphere. Beijing’s trade with the region has grown over twenty times in the last two decades. Since 2005, Beijing has provided at least $150 billion in loans to Latin American countries and state-owned firms. For the period between 2015 and 2019, President Xi Jinping set out the remarkable goal of $500 billion in trade and $250 billion in direct investment.
China is currently the region’s second largest trading partner (after the US) and the largest extra-regional trading partner for key countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Uruguay. After developing a trading relationship in the 1990s, between 2005 and 2010 the China-Latin America relationship entered a new phase – focused on financing and Foreign Direct Investment in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina.
Since 2013, Beijing has moved into a third phase: infrastructure projects, based on global composite strategies such as the “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). The inclusion of Latin America in the OBOR and particularly the proposed Be-Oceanic Railroad (TORR) could be a transformative factor in the continental geopolitics, letting Brazil (a BRICS and MERCOSUR member) break through to the Pacific Ocean and create a platform for cooperation between MERCOSUR and the pro-US Pacific Alliance.
However, the economic relationship between China and Latin America remains riddled with tensions. Aside from a growing trade defecit with China, Latin America is still seen as a “centre-periphery” liaison. Moreover, the recent political trend towards centrist governments, in addition to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela (one of China’s preeminent Latin American partners), represent a critical test for what seems to be a marriage of convenience. If Xi Jinping wishes to capitalise on the United States’ lack of engagement with Latin America, he needs to foster the image of a leader committed to globalisation.
Ultimately, Trump’s absence at the Summit of the Americas stresses a key feature of the US stance in the region; although the control or dominance of North and South America is one of the oldest US strategic imperatives, Latin America is not perceived as an overriding geopolitical area of interest. As no regional or external actor has the capability nor the resources to fill the geopolitical vacuum, the American hyperpower will keep a vigilant eye and intervene only if and when geostrategic interests are jeopardised. Likewise, China isn’t capable of projecting significant power in the Western Hemipshere; Beijing has bolstered ties through trade, investment and financing, but its cardinal goal has been to advance its domestic economic and financial development. Given such a low-conflict framework, most Latin American states will continue to pursue maximum profit from relationships with China and the US.
Lorenzo Di Muro is a contributing editor at Limes – Italian Review of Geopolitics, and a contributor to Aspenia and La Voce d’Italia. His research focuses on global geopolitics, Sino–US relations and Latin America. Find him on Twitter @lorenzdimuro. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons.