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Foreign Policy

Latin America’s Rising Status in the Sino-US Relationship

Jun 23 , 2013
  • Niu Haibin

    Research Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for Int'l Studies

One interesting thing for international observers recently is that Latin America and the Caribbean has become a common foreign priority for both the newly established administrations in the US and China.

Both President Xi and President Obama made an overlapping trip to Latin America with an economic agenda. Both countries’ vice presidents also made visits to several South American countries. The Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was invited to make a state visit that will be the only one for the White House this year. The other impressive achievement is a $300 billion bilateral currency swap agreement signed by Brazil and China during President Xi’s attendance at the Fifth BRICS Summit in March. Furthermore, a forum on Latin America has been established at the Boao Forum for Asia this year. Considering the daunting challenges facing both China and the U.S. in other regions their newly found interest in Latin America is impressive, but the reasons and context behind this interest is different.

For the Obama administration’s second term, it is a major policy adjustment rather than a policy continuation to focus on Latin America. Since 9/11, counter-terrorism efforts, the international financial crisis, and the pivot to Asia have occupied the majority of the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Subsequently, Latin America has been an overlooked region for more than a decade. The Obama administration’s first term tried to improve its relationship with the region, but faced setbacks because of its policies on Cuba, immigration and anti-drug issues. Instead, the regional approach must be shifted to a bilateral, country-by-country approach.

There Obama administration’s policy shift in Latin America can be explained by two factors:  the rediscovered importance of Latin America to the United States’ economic recovery and Latin America’s position as a promising region could allow US engagement to make visible achievements. First, in the 2012 presidential debates, Republican candidate Mitt Romney criticized Obama’s Latin American policy and treated the Latin American economy as an alternative to China, arguing to strengthen US trade with the region. This argument obviously had an impact on Obama’s second term agenda and Latin American policy. Second, following the same logic of its pivot to the Asia Pacific, Latin America is a stable and promising region the U.S. can’t afford to overlook. Achievements in US relations with Latin America will also help Democrats win future presidential elections considering the increasing influence of Latinos in domestic politics.

In regards to President Xi’s Latin American policy, it is more a continuation than an adjustment of policy. In the past decade, the Sino-Latin American relationship has witnessed a golden period of development. China is the second largest trading partner for Latin America; its demand for raw materials and primary products has both improved Latin American countries’ terms of trade and contributed to the region’s better performance in dealing with the recent international financial crisis. Additionally, President Xi has worked to deepen the ties by addressing potential challenges, strengthening this promising relationship. China raised its strategic partnerships with Peru and Mexico to comprehensive strategic ones. Mutual investment, financial cooperation and open trade are being paid more attention from the Chinese side. One aim of China’s recent diplomacy is to establish a Sino-Latin American Dialogue Forum, which has received positive supports from Brazil, Mexico, and other countries within the region.

Now, it is necessary to understand how this strengthening interest by the US and China in Latin America could impact the Sino-US relationship as well as Latin America as a whole. From a geopolitical perspective, both sides have some arguments to dilute each other’s influence globally. However, policy influence of such arguments is very limited. It is natural for both world powers’ diplomatic agendas to intersect. One noteworthy argument from Chinese side is that China should enhance its engagement with regions outside of Asia as the US pivot to the Asia Pacific attempts to contain China. This argument should be interpreted to explore the diplomatic space available for China as a global power rather than to counter US hegemony. Also, China needs to understand the recent intensive American engagement with Latin America by following the same logic.

In fact, both countries demonstrated their pragmatic spirit and economic-oriented approach during their recent engagements with Latin America. The most cited achievement about President Xi’s visit to Mexico was that China agreed to resume imports of Mexican pork and to import tequila. Similar review was also given to President Obama’s visit to Mexico by arguing the trip was to focus on economic cooperation rather than drug issues. This is a good posture considering that no Latin American country wants to choose side between the US and China. Ultimately, Latin American countries benefit from cooperation with the world’s two largest markets.

Although both countries are trying to avoid geopolitical competition, it is important to manage their interaction in Latin America. At the bilateral level, the United States and China have held several strategic dialogues on Latin American affairs since 2006. The purpose of the dialogue is to enhance mutual trust and prevent miscalculations by interpreting their engagements with Latin America. This continual dialogue can help interpret why the US government holds a positive attitude to China’s increasing ties with Latin America despite some very conservative and suspicious attitudes in the US. The US has showed its support to both China’s permanent observer status in the Organization of American States and China’s membership at the Inter-American Development Bank.

To build a more positive and constructive interaction among the US, China and Latin America, the key is to hold a mutually beneficial and win-win attitude to the trilateral relationship. First, to respect the growing independence of Latin America per se is important for both the US and China in furthering their engagement with the region.  Second, both the US and China should build a development partnership to address Latin America’s sustainable development concerns. In doing so, the region has more chances to see a more hopeful future.

Niu Haibin is a Research Fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

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