Chinese Autocracy Is Spreading in Latin America and the West Is Watching

If the U.S. and Europe want to successfully confront authoritarian superpowers, they need the support of all like-minded parties. Instead of leaving Latin America’s democracies to China, they should actively sponsor and integrate them.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has made it unmistakably clear to the world that we find ourselves, three centuries after the end of the Cold War, in a new global confrontation between Western democracies and authoritarian superpowers. President Vladimir Putin may lose this war. But the real challenge for the West in this century will be an authoritarian China. In that case, a deciding factor will be whether the countries representing Western, democratic values demonstrate unity in the face of authoritarian threat.

A majority of Latin American countries also belong to this community of shared values. No other world region is so linked to Europe and the U.S. with respect to culture and values. Even today, descendants of European immigrants are still the ones who dominate political and economic life in Latin America.

One could argue that until the end of the Cold War, Latin America was defined by military dictatorships; one should also not forget, however, that until 1945, a significant portion of Europeans also did not live in a democracy. In any case, a democratic society has established itself in most Latin American countries in the last 30 years. And these democracies have largely withstood the recent economic crisis that relegated segments of the population to poverty and the great affliction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hunting for Resources and Markets

But since the turn of the century, the influence of Chinese autocracy has grown rapidly in Latin America — to the point that it is starting to displace Western dominance. In 2000, just 1.1% of exports from Latin America went to China. In 2018, before the pandemic, that number had risen to 21% if one excludes Mexico, which is closely tied to the U.S. Thus, the Chinese had already surpassed the U.S. by a noticeable margin, given that only 15% of exports were destined for the U.S. in the same year.

China is also playing an increasingly important role as a creditor. Between 2005 and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, China made a collective $141 billion available to the region, more than the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Bank of the South combined. Among the five largest economies in South America, China is currently the most important trade partner for Brazil, Chile and Peru, and the second most important for Argentina and Colombia.

China has paid particular attention to building regional infrastructure. In 2015, President Xi Jinping promised to invest $250 billion in such projects over the course of 10 years. Since 2017, countries in Latin America have been able to join China’s large-scale foreign political and economic project for global infrastructure, the Belt and Road Initiative. This undertaking aims to build harbors, roads, rail lines and dams under Chinese direction. Currently seven of South America’s nine Spanish-speaking countries — including Argentina, Chile and Peru—have joined the BRI. Among the six largest economies in Latin America, only Brazil, Mexico and Colombia are missing.

China Is Creating Dependency

The close economic entanglement with China results in the creation of increasingly more pro-Chinese interest groups, even in circles that ideologically have little in common with the Chinese Communist Party. For example, the export-oriented economy, whose main customer is China, is pressuring President Jair Bolsonaro to improve relations with China. The Chilean economy is today considered to be similarly pro-China. China is currently Chile’s most important trade partner, far ahead of the U.S.

Meanwhile, China is working on the political, economic and academic elite to convince them about the superiority of the Chinese political system. This is done primarily through invitations for paid study trips and conferences in China during which China tries to convince visitors that China’s developmental model without democracy is superior to that of the West. In this respect, they intend to legitimize one-party rule.

In 2017, Xi announced that by 2023, 15,000 members of parties from across the political spectrum would be invited to China. And China’s lobbying can already claim some success. For example, Beijing’s candidate for general director of the Food and Agriculture Organization, Qu Dongyu, defeated the American candidate in 2019, thanks in part to the votes of most representatives from Latin America.

A Forgotten Monroe Doctrine

The country that can most feasibly counteract China’s expansion is, of course, the United States. As early as 1823, President James Monroe formulated the doctrine that was eventually named after him, according to which the U.S. considered the entire Western hemisphere its sphere of influence and would counter interference from foreign states — which, at the time, referred to European colonial powers — by intervening itself. Until the turn of the century, this was America’s guiding principle, even as it often faced criticism in the region. But in the face of China’s current expansion, of all things, the Monroe Doctrine seems to have been forgotten.

The policies of President Donald Trump had a particularly devastating effect. He viewed Latin America above all as a problem region that made life difficult for the U.S. with illegal immigration, drug trade and organized crime. Instead of strengthening democratic forces in the region, he supported increasingly authoritarian presidents in northern Central America in the hope of thus being able to stem the tide of migration. His frequent disparaging remarks about the country’s southern neighbors exacerbated America’s already damaged reputation in the region even further

Trump visited the region only once during his four years in office, when he attended the 2018 Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires. Xi, in contrast, has already visited 12 Latin American countries — more than Trump and Barack Obama combined.

The COVID-19 pandemic further elevated China’s status in the region. While the U.S. and Europe focused primarily on fighting the pandemic at home, Beijing supported Latin America early on with large shipments of masks, personal protective equipment and test kits — and, eventually, vaccines.

Vital Partners for the West

Latin America is not a negligible quantity. It would behoove the West to view Latin America — with a population around 1 1/2 times that of the European Union, a growing gross domestic product that is currently about a third of the EU’s and its status as a globally significant exporter of raw materials — as an important strategic partner in the competition between democracies and the authoritarian superpowers, China and Russia.

Given the West’s disinterest, many Latin American politicians from across the spectrum view China as a pragmatic and reliable ally. It is an illusion, however, for them to believe that they could engage in dialogue with Beijing on an equal footing. China seeks raw materials, markets and political support in Latin America for its global expansion project. It does not view the allied countries as equal partners. Instead, China sees itself as a leading nation around which other countries should gather like satellites, as University of California, Berkeley, Professor Gérard Roland recently put it.

Yes, Latin America’s experience with the U.S. as a regional power was by no means always good. But still, the two regions of the Americas are still linked by shared cultural and political values.

Moreover, recent experience shows that collaboration with the Chinese is by no means unproblematic. A giant Chinese hydroelectric power station in Ecuador, for instance, was recently revealed to be an extremely bloated project with severe environmental problems. In Peru, there is currently a tense confrontation going on between local inhabitants and a large Chinese mine because the mine has not paid the compensation contracted for. The rigid terms for Chinese loans do not make cooperation with China seem particularly advantageous, either.

China’s growing influence poses a threat to the still-young democracies in the region. Increasingly authoritarian tendencies have already resurfaced in a number of countries. It is reasonable to fear that China’s promotion of an authoritarian model of development will give such ambitions a new source of legitimacy. The situation demands a Western political response that strategically sponsors democracy in the region and punishes authoritarian behavior. Most of the world’s population lives under an authoritarian regime. In the competition between political systems, the West cannot do without a democratic Latin America as an ally.

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