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Foreign Policy

The U.S. Factor in Sino-Latin American Relations

Nov 03 , 2011

China’s relations with Latin America in recent years have been moving forward rapidly. Frequent high level exchanges have taken place, bilateral trade and investment have grown quickly, and cooperation and contacts between the two sides have been built in every area. No one would doubt that Sino-Latin American relations are now in the best shape.

However, the United States has been concerned ever since the first signs of a better relationship between China and Latin America emerged around 2004. Capitol Hill has had several hearings looking into the consequences; the U.S. news media have shown keen interest in every development; and even academics have devoted an inordinate amount of attention to the ties across the Pacific.

No less significant is that in April 2006, for the first time in history, a senior U.S. official, Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere, visited Beijing to talk with his Chinese counterpart over China’s dealings with Latin America.

It seems that many U.S. legislators, journalists, scholars and even the public have a negative view. For instance, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on March 9, 2005, General Bantz J. Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, said, “An increasing presence of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the region is an emerging dynamic that must not be ignored.” He noted that in 2004, military officials from China made 20 visits to Latin America, while Ministers and Chiefs of Defense from nine countries in Latin America visited the PRC. “Growing economic interests, presence and influence in the region are not a threat, but they are clearly components of a condition we should recognize and consider carefully as we form our own objectives, policies and engagement in the region,” said the U.S. general.

At a hearing of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee in April 2005, U.S. Congressman Dan Burton said, “The traditional goals of U.S. policy in Latin America have always included promoting political stability, promoting democracy, increasing access to markets, and preventing the rise of hegemonic power. Until we know the definitive answer to this question of whether China will play by the rules of fair trade and engage responsibly on transnational issues, I believe we should be cautious and view the rise of Chinese power as something to be counterbalanced or contained, and perhaps go so far as to consider China's actions in Latin America as the movement of a hegemonic power into our hemisphere.”
Apparently, Burton mistakenly considered the development of Sino-Latin American relations as a danger to the United States. According to him, China's rising economic, political and military influence in the western hemisphere poses serious challenges to the United States in the years ahead. “If we are not careful, Beijing's influence could easily unravel the region's hard-won, U.S.-backed reforms to fight against corruption, human rights abuses, increase government transparency and combat intellectual property violations, and the democracies that we see as fledgling democracies could be in real jeopardy. We must work in earnest to prevent this from happening,” he said.
The U.S. Congressman added, “I would also caution our friends throughout Latin America about granting China full market economy status. I think it is clear that China's state subsidies, its currency peg, and poor labor rights conditions disqualify China from truly deserving …[the] ‘market economy status’. Consequently, granting China full market economy status would be, in my view, a grave error in judgment.” 

When a subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based firm, Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., was to make more investment in the Panama Canal, U.S. intelligence officials said that the company's owner, Li Ka-shing, had close ties to Chinese leaders in Beijing and that the facilities could be used by China to disrupt military shipments to Asia in a future conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan.

The news media in the United Sates has also been firing up the wrong perception of the development of Chinese relations with Latin America. One article in the Wall Street Journal, for instance, says, “The rise of China in the region could complicate U.S. efforts to control illegal immigration, weapons shipments, the drug trade and money laundering because China is cooperating with Latin countries that are not especially friendly toward those efforts. Some of these nations may try to use the Chinese alternative to challenge U.S. hegemony.”

An article from the website of a U.S. NGO, Patriot Action Network, criticized the Obama Administration for “surrendering South America to China,” asking “Is this the final nail in the coffin of the Monroe Doctrine? ? ?”.

As early as the 1820s, U.S. President James Monroe put forward the well-known “Monroe Doctrine,” declaring that further efforts by European countries to colonize land or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention. The doctrine is still the foundation of United States’ foreign policy toward Latin America.

Julia Sweig, Director of the Latin America Program at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington, once said if President Monroe could see that Latin America’s relations with China, Russia and Iran have been so close, he would certainly be rolling over in his grave.

The U.S. concerns are unnecessary and unfounded.

First, both China and Latin America have been opening to the outside world. In the age of globalization, both should cooperate to promote South-South collaboration. As a matter of fact, further cooperation between China and Latin America will benefit regional peace and development in the Asia-Pacific and Latin America. This outcome would certainly be welcomed by the United States.

Second, it is well-known that Latin America has been implementing reforms and opening to the outside world for almost two decades. It endeavors to attract more foreign investment and liberalize the market to stimulate growth. As a result, China is only one of the economic partners Latin America has been trying to cooperate with.

Third, China’s relations with Latin America are for economic purposes, not for political outcomes to be used against the U.S. China well understands that Latin America is the backyard of the United States, so there is no need for it to challenge American influence. 
Fourth, China’s cooperation with Latin America in military and security fields is not targeting any third party and it is hardly a secret issue. China’s first policy paper on Latin America, published in November 2008, openly set aside one section to deal with the issue. It said: “The Chinese side will actively carry out military exchanges and defense dialogue and cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean countries. Mutual visits by defense and military officials of the two sides, as well as personnel exchanges, will be enhanced.” Moreover, China’s military relations with Latin America are undertaken according to the following principles: 1) to gain better understanding of the Latin American military; 2) to improve professional expertise by learning from each other; 3) never target any third party; and 4) never harm regional and hemispheric stability. These principles are not counter to U.S. national interest and dominance in the western hemisphere.

Finally, China does not wish to be used as a “card” against the United States. It has no enthusiasm for getting entangled in the problems of U.S.-Latin American relations.
It is encouraging to see that in the U.S. there are other voices commenting about Sino-Latin American relations. For instance, Manuel Rocha, former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, also said, “Were it not for China, Latin America would probably be showing a much more lackluster [economic] performance.” In testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, in June 2008, Daniel P. Erikson, then a senior researcher at the Inter-American Dialogue, pointed out that “while China’s expansion into Latin America may imply a potential loss for some U.S. business sectors, it is important to note that trade is not a zero sum game. To the extent that China’s involvement is sparking economic growth in Latin America, it may contribute to economic stability and well-being in a manner that suits the U.S. desire to see a prosperous and healthy neighborhood.” Erikson added, “China’s engagement in Latin America is not yet a major concern for the United States, and there are few signs of any real frictions between the two countries on that score.”
So, President Monroe does not need to roll over in his grave.

Jiang Shixue is a professor at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Vice President of Chinese Association of Latin American Studies.

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