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Foreign Policy

The Perils of Preconceptions

Nov 09 , 2018
  • Tom Harper

    Doctoral researcher, University of Surrey

1024px-Cena_de_Estado_que_en_honor_del_Excmo._Sr._Xi_Jinping,_Presidente_de_la_República_Popular_China,_y_de_su_esposa,_Sra._Peng_Liyuan_(8960384656).jpg

The story of China’s involvement with the developing world entered its latest chapter with El Salvador’s recognition of the People’s Republic, switching from its previous alignment with Taiwan. What differentiates this from the previous competitions between Beijing and Taipei for international status has been the uncharacteristically fierce American reaction; where once Washington had acted with indifference towards those who had shifted their recognition to Beijing, the State Department labeled the move as ‘deeply disappointing,’ illustrating a break from the previous nonchalant attitude. While this reaction has been attributed to staffing shifts in the Trump administration, most notably the addition of the hawkish John Bolton who has critical links to Taipei; a broader explanation can be found in the implications for the Monroe Doctrine, a policy initiated under U.S. President James Monroe that seeks to prevent any external interference in the American sphere of influence.  From this viewpoint, China’s active involvement in Latin America is exactly what the doctrine defines as a threat to U.S. interests.

China’s expanded involvement in the region serves a number of purposes. Originally, it was part of China’s quest for wider global recognition, as many of the states that recognize Taiwan independently are in Latin America. But more recently, Beijing has considered the region to be a burgeoning market for Chinese goods, and it has also become important in Beijing’s attempts to change its supply chains, most notably in soy beans and meat. Brazilian produce in particular is seen as a viable alternative to American agricultural products, which previously dominated Chinese markets.

El Salvador’s diplomatic shift is also the latest phase in the increasingly confrontational relationship between Beijing and Washington. Some interpret these changes in the China-U.S. relationship as part of the Thucydides Trap; but while this makes for a compelling long-term narrative, it is based on a flawed preconception of Chinese foreign policy. The template of the great power rivalries of the past does not fit with China’s rise, and this in turn creates a tainted reading of Chinese foreign policy, meaning that any response based on this image will inevitably be flawed as well. Debunking these inaccurate preconceptions and exploring the methodology of China’s approach to Latin America can also reveal Xi’s grand strategy for the future.

The Preconceptions of Chinese Foreign Policy

Two main preconceptions rule conversations of Chinese foreign policy. The first is that only diplomatic courtship policy China employs is a ‘no questions asked’ approach which involves showering corrupt nations with Chinese capital.  This has contributed to the perception that China, being more willing to donate aid without conditions, lacks the prowess to engage in non-monetary diplomacy. While China’s wealth has been a significant foreign policy tool in furthering its influence, this view overlooks the increasingly diverse array of mechanisms that China deploys in its international relations. Chinese strategies vary based on the internal make up of a nation; for example, Chinese foreign policy often relies on soft power methods in more democratic states, such as the construction of Confucius Institutes in Europe. These gentler strategies build consent for Chinese projects in these nations, paving the way for economic gain without showering the country in capital. While these methods may not be the most expeditious, they nevertheless illustrate a diversity in Chinese foreign policy beyond the simplistic images of it.

The second preconception is the view of China as a revisionist power, based on the logic of great power rivalry from the 20th century and focused strongly on China’s military build-up. While this concept fit a rival following the template of the Soviet Union, China follows a largely different path, rooted in its distinctive history and unprecedented development as well as a largely different interpretation of power and strategy, which has seen as much emphasis on the non-military aspects of strategy and warfare, based in the theories of Sun Tzu and Mao Zedong’s depiction of guerrilla warfare, which has seen the emergence of a strategic culture different from that of the Soviets, who placed emphasis on hard power. As a result, the perception of the Sino-American rivalry as a second Cold War again perpetuates a flawed image of Chinese policies, which generates flawed responses to them. To further counter these incorrect preconceptions, the examination of how China was able to make gains in Latin America serves as a perfect case study.

Building Influence Throughout the World

To understand Chinese influence cultivation in Latin America, it is first necessary to explore how it was able to do so in Africa. China entered due to the vacuum left by American and Russian indifference to the continent at the end of the Cold War, which was augmented by European complacency in its former colonies. Additionally, China’s ideological assistance to anti-colonial movements on the continent enabled it to establish long-standing ties with post-colonial African governments. Further, Chinese soft power initiatives, while often dismissed, have been integral in this process, with China’s global voice being augmented by its involvement in African media and its popularity as a study destination for students from Anglophone Africa. The Chinese model of development also found a receptive audience on the continent, challenging the traditional notions of capitalism and development codified by the Washington Consensus.

China’s policies in Latin America follow a common pattern; and by emulating its African strategy, China has found similar success in Latin America. Importantly, China lacks the contentious baggage that has plagued the United States in Latin America, the spectre of which was raised by the discussion of a possible coup in Venezuela. This conversation raised the legacy of American assistance to right-wing military rule during the Cold War that left many in Latin America disgusted at the U.S.,  something China has been able to exploit for its own ends.

China has also been willing to carry out initiatives in the region that other nations have been unwilling to do, such as its infrastructure investments in El Salvador as well as in the Dominican Republic, which also switched its recognition earlier this year, a move that has been attributed to Chinese investment in the nation worth $3.1 billion. These particular investments were a notable factor in encouraging diplomatic recognition of Beijing, as Taiwan was reluctant to invest, citing the high costs of these moves. Beijing’s willingness to take greater risks than its competition has served to further its aims. 

While Chinese soft power initiatives are still nascent in Latin America, if the precedents in Africa and Asia are to serve as indicators, it is likely that scholars from Latin America will also consider China to be a notable study destination, extending China’s influence beyond economics and politics to culture itself.

The Latin America Long Game

China’s gains in Latin America have been the result of policies that it honed throughout the developing world and that have often been overlooked in the mainstream discourse, with China’s tremendous military build-up grabbing the majority of the headlines. By following these policies, China has become a major external actor in the African states, a success that it has begun to repeat in Latin America. As a result, it has become difficult for other states to compete with China, a reality that illustrates the crux of China’s challenge to the U.S. 

For the U.S. to deliver any response to these policies, strategies must move away from the flawed preconceptions of Chinese foreign policy and rely on the reality of China’s activity in the developing world. Ultimately, one needs to learn from China rather than to shut it out, as increased disinformation will only force reliance on the inaccurate preconceptions that allowed China access to Latin America in the first place.

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