From Jan. 8-9, the first ministerial-level meeting between China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States was held in Beijing, marking a new beginning and laying the groundwork for “upgraded” relations between the two sides.
However, many in the foreign media have opined that China intends to utilize the China-CELAC talks to counter the United States’ “Asian rebalancing strategy” in its own back yard, claiming that China’s plan in extending its reach to Latin America is not only to gain access to raw materials, but also to gain a foothold in U.S. geostrategic territory. Others have asserted that the China-CELAC forum can only benefit one power at the expense of the other; that is, that Latin American countries will become more reliant upon China and correspondingly less so upon the United States, and that Latin American states will use this to erode U.S. control and influence in the region.
Quickly-warming relations between China and Latin America have indeed taken some Americans outside of their comfort zone, but U.S. politicians and academics are well aware that the China-CELAC talks will not undermine U.S. strategy. Also, the United States has not voiced strong opposition to closer ties between the two sides.
Cooperation between China and Latin America in sensitive areas has been carefully managed so as not to strike any U.S. nerves. China and Latin America have taken particular care to ensure that collaboration in military and security affairs are small in scale, step and action. One could say that it has all been well within the bounds of geopolitical propriety, and the United States has accordingly not overreacted or made strategic misjudgments. Added to the mix has been a series of Russian moves on the board. Russia has inflated its military presence in Latin America, seeking to establish naval supply bases in Cuba and Argentina, flying long-range bombers on patrol through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and putting the intelligence-collecting warship Viktor Leonov in to port at Havana. These actions have caused considerable alarm within the United States, and have been interpreted by the U.S. media as a Russian return to Latin America.
China is not establishing links with only those Latin American states that oppose the United States, but making friends of all Latin American nations. In particular, China has not aligned itself ideologically with the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America; the choice to establish a partnership rather than an alliance has allowed the United States to breathe a sigh of relief.
Putting all the ballyhoo about the “China threat theory” aside, there are voices that suggest a “positive Chinese element” within warming Chinese-Latin American relations. Adherents to this viewpoint maintain that China’s charm offensive in Latin America not only will not constitute a threat to U.S. interests, but will also, in fact, be of benefit. They first argue that the Chinese “express train” heading to Latin America will help create greater prosperity and openness in the region. Second is the prospect that a sharp rise in Chinese demand for Latin American mineral resources and staples will power Latin American economic development and lighten the United States’ own burden of propping up the region.
They argue that even if China holds many more interests in Latin America, the U.S. position and general dynamics in the region will remain unchanged. The U.S. need not fear a gradual rise of the “Chinese element;” this is because China simply cannot match the geopolitical advantages or economic, political and cultural relationships of the United States in Latin America, and would therefore make for a poor understudy. The U.S. and China will not clash or oppose each other in Latin America. China will not sacrifice U.S.-China relations for the sake of establishing ties with Latin America, and the U.S. should not, and need not, overreact to the Chinese element.
The author is director of the Department for Developing Countries Studies at the China Institute of International Studies.
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