Approximate Read Time: 12 minutes
By Alex Schwier, Claire Melton, and Brittany Stanley
In September 1901, hundreds gathered at the Minnesota State Fair to hear from then Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt. He used the opportunity to discuss the topic of national duties and the inevitability of involvement with foreign adversaries. Roosevelt referred to a widely known adage “speak softly and carry a big stick,” suggesting that only through the ability of the United States to substantiate its claims through action would it continue to see success. Today, the United States’ national interests demand an ability to balance stated political objectives with the physical means and willingness to achieve them.
Today, the United States faces many global issues that require some form of the approach detailed above. Perhaps one of the most strategic situations that demands this mindset is the rise of Chinese influence in Latin America. To gain influence in Latin America, the United States routinely acts in the name of soft power and diplomatic actions. As the world faces the modern era, China continues to outpace the United States in Latin American financial and infrastructural investment resulting in decreased American political influence. Ultimately, the United States must sustain popular political support in Latin America as well as advance existing economic and diplomatic partnerships by bolstering military power in the region to gain a comparative advantage over China.
This commentary serves as a sounding board for operational exploration of Chinese influence in Latin America and what the United States must do to meet its political goals in the region. In order to explore this situation thoroughly, this article covers the history and current political, economic, and social climate of Latin America. Next, it provides an understanding of Chinese expansionism and its interests in Latin America. Finally, the exploration offers solutions for the United States in establishing increased power and influence in Latin America relative to China.
Political and Social Instability
Current political and social instability in Latin America made China’s push for influence more successful. In recent years, Latin America became consumed by protests. Stagnant economies and corrupt leadership drove political and social unrest, “From Bolivia to Ecuador, Haiti to Honduras, the closing months of 2019 have seen enormous, sometimes violent demonstrations prompted by a truly dizzying array of grievances, including electoral fraud, corruption, and rising fuel and public transportation prices.” Latin America saw a similar economic downturn in the early 2000s. However, Latin American economies received relief by increasing trade with China evidenced by a growth average of 3.5% between 2003 and 2013 – their best performance in half a century. With that successful recovery relief from China leaving an indelible impact on their once stagnant economies, many Latin American countries may seek that same partnership now. This poses a dangerous threat to the United States’ interests in the region.
Another factor wielding incredible influence on the region and causing an increased reliance on Chinese support is transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). Transnational organized crime in Latin America consists of drug trafficking; smuggling of humans, animals, and other products; and money laundering. Its causes are deeply rooted in corruption, poor governance, poverty, and inequality. Additionally, crime in Latin America contributes to the destabilization of existing economic stability and directly links to the high levels of violence in the region. Many of the illegal commodities produced by TCOs end up being sold in the United States, resulting in tens of billions of dollars in profit annually. This massive sale of illegal drugs undermines the Latin American rule of law which is evidenced by the fact that 43 of the 50 most violent cities in the world are located in the region. Furthermore, transnational organized crime directly links to corruption allowing TCOs to gain more influence and perpetuate their power by assuming the function of public security.
In addition to corruption and high crime rates, many Latin Americans doubt the effectiveness of democracy. Corruption and political leaders’ low approval ratings plague Latin America making any progressive changes to legislation virtually impossible. According to data from the 2019 Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University, only 57% of Latin Americans now believe democracy is “better than any other form of government.” That number fell sharply from the previous estimates of 66-70% approval in 2014. Diminishing public approval coupled with witnessing America’s own internal instability (refer to the Capitol riots on January 6th, 2021), left many Latin Americans vulnerable to Chinese indoctrination and influence. A prominent example of failed democracy in Latin America is Venezuela where Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro have turned the once democratic and economically thriving country into a center for violence, poverty, and drug trafficking.
Political instability, coupled with crime and corruption are not all the problems facing the region: Latin America now suffers from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Latin America continues to suffer immensely due to the pandemic, with the region accounting for 31% of fatalities despite having only 8.2% of the world’s population. In the beginning stages of the pandemic, many Latin American countries sought help from the region’s number one trading partner: China. Aid supplies included ventilators, masks, protective suits, and investments toward the creation of a vaccine. COVID-19 investment, coupled with other recent economic investments through the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (AIIB) in Beijing and the New Development Bank (NDB) in Shanghai, drove 19 Latin American governments to join Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Ultimately, Chinese aid is actively helping Latin America recover from a global pandemic, enabling the rising hegemon to influence vulnerable countries into cooperating with potentially overt Chinese expansion in the future.
China’s Global Expansion
In the past several decades, China increased its economic and political influence in other regions as well. China’s efforts to become a more influential member of the international community began in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping’s new foreign policy, which shifted Chinese goals from supporting communist liberalization movements to encouraging economic trade with all countries regardless of regime type. As a result, China developed the second largest economy in the world. China’s internationalist foreign policy came with a political agenda as well. As the Chinese economy grows and other countries develop a dependency on Chinese trade, Chinese political power and global influence increase. As a result, China found great success in Latin America where it developed strong economic ties over the past few decades.
China and Latin America may be geographically distant and have distinctly different cultures and ideologies. However, China saw an opportunity for both economic cooperation and a foothold for increasing influence in the Western Hemisphere. Trade between the two focuses on the export of natural resources to China, and the import of technology and material resources to Latin America. Of the countries in Latin America, Brazil has both the largest economy and the most trade with China. One indicator of the strength of economic relations between these two countries is Brazil’s exports consist of 80% of its total soybean crop as well as 60% of its iron ore. Between 2000 and 2020, bilateral trade between China and Brazil rose from $2 billion to $100 billion. Relations between China and Brazil are not purely economic. The two countries also have corporate relations within scientific and technological programs such as a joint satellite program called the China-Brazil Earth Resources Satellite (CBERS), which has been in operation since 1993.
China also integrated itself into the economies of other Latin American countries through trade and investment. Chinese companies invested in Venezuela in hopes of obtaining access to Venezuela’s petroleum. Although this will boost the Latin American petroleum industry as a whole, it comes at the price of harming local producers. Without the ability to compete against China’s lower prices and higher quality, local producers will be driven out making Latin America more dependent on Chinese trade. Another area of Chinese investment in Latin America is the company SinoVac, distributing a COVID-19 vaccine as a clinical trial with results of stunning success in both Brazil and Chile. This has not only directly impacted Latin American society but also the positive perception that the region has of China. As the United States focused on “America First” before offering foreign aid, many Latin American leaders began to favor China. Despite the U.S. change in administration, the nation continues to progress towards a high-priority domestic agenda while China promotes its goals of becoming more engaged with global economic institutions in an effort to expand its economic growth and influence and be seen as a more constructive member of the international community.
Solutions to Combatting Chinese Influence
Upon assuming office, President Joe Biden designated national security as one of his main objectives. The recently published, “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance,” expounds his goals. In which it states, the United States must “promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies,” as well as, “lead and sustain a stable and open international system.” With respect to Latin America, the Biden administration plans to work with Congress to invest $4 billion in assistance to the region. However, obtaining political stability and fostering strong partnerships in Latin America will require significantly more time and money.
The United States may soon face a neighbor in Latin America with an uncomfortable reliance on China. Reliance and influence are inextricably related. In order to parry China’s increasingly strong foothold in the region, the United States must “speak softly,” or use soft power measures to reestablish the influence it has lost over the past decade. Current political philosophy revolves around providing the necessary support to offer an economic alternative to Latin America. However, there is one fundamental flaw with this notion: it assumes that Latin American countries desire separation or feel equipped to disassociate themselves from China. It is this idea that makes the use of soft power in support of this national security objective inherently challenging. Since the People’s Republic of China has given over $165 billion in loans to Latin American countries, they now have substantial debts to China. For this reason, the United States must act more boldly, pursuing both short-term and long-term solutions while bolstering U.S. military power to counter TCOs.
The COVID-19 pandemic left Latin America in its “darkest hour,” and the United States needs to take action now more than ever. To regain influence in the region, the United States must leverage the opportunity to help its neighbors in their COVID-19 recovery. A short-term solution is the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to countries that are in need of and willing to accept them. Humanitarian aid in the form of vaccine distribution would noticeably increase U.S. influence and become an effective tool in winning back Latin American hearts and minds. Since democracies like the United States tend to develop better public health policies than authoritarian governments due to enhanced information and research, sharing research and data is vital. Additionally, with over 200 million Americans fully vaccinated, the United States must now begin supplying vaccines abroad – specifically partner countries in Latin America. Latin American countries including Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Peru, and Paraguay have less than 35% of their populations vaccinated suggesting that U.S. investment in these particular countries could have the greatest impact. Ultimately, it is imperative that the United States take advantage of the opportunity to help Latin America now. COVID-19 can strengthen the U.S.’s influence in the region, or it will leave relationships fragile and subject to Chinese infiltration.
Beyond short-term solutions, the United States must also turn its attention toward strengthening partnerships to better combat transnational criminal activity that threatens the legitimacy of democracies, weakens the economies of both the U.S. and partner nations, and incites violence. Ruthlessly combatting TCOs and breaking down the social roles that surround them is a critical step to regaining influence. An approach mirroring the United States’ “Plan Colombia” in 2000 during which the United States provided security and economic development assistance to help combat the spread of narcotics, train law enforcement, and promote economic growth would likely yield similar successful outcomes in the region. Providing military assistance to combat TCOs, development assistance to teach agricultural methods to reduce the need for Chinese trade by supporting the local population first while also building trade partnerships with the U.S. and providing financial and military aid to train and educate law enforcement would promote ties between the United States and Latin America. Additionally, the funding and support could help nations move from cartel-ridden fragile states to strategic allies and economic partners. These efforts are likely to have positive effects beyond safety and economic prosperity in Latin America to include the reduction of Chinese influence in the region and making it a more suitable and desirable place to live, which could potentially lead to the second order effect of decreasing the number of individuals who illegally immigrate to the United States each year.
The aforementioned efforts align with the United States’ current political objectives and serve as a stepping-stone to maintaining its status as the global hegemon. The solutions will also open opportunities to rebuild stronger partnerships and help nations involved with China realign with the United States. The United States does not need to reinvent the wheel to regain influence in Latin America — it simply needs to recognize the importance and opportunity in helping a region greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and transnational organized crime.
Soft power efforts are critical to the position of the United States on the global stage today, and even more important to its position in a decade. It is imperative that the United States take action now, so it inhibits China’s ability to assume the role of the dominant power in Latin America. The words of Winston Churchill regarding the presidential seal ring true today, “The [Eagle’s head] should be on a swivel so that it can turn from the talons of war to the olive branch of peace as the occasion warrants.” The effective and immediate use of soft power strategies in Latin America equates to facing the branch of peace. It is these actions that will prevent the necessity of facing the talons of war, thus avoiding a proxy war with China.
Author Bios: Cadets Alexandria Schwier, Claire Melton, and Brittany Stanley are members of the Class of 2023 at the United States Air Force Academy – majoring in Foreign Area Studies, Law, and Astronautical Engineering. Cadets Schwier and Stanley hope to commission as pilots while Cadet Melton is an aspiring JAG.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.