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Foreign Policy

Why is the US Worried about Xi Jinping’s Latin America Trip?

Jul 30 , 2014

From July 13 to 23, Chinese President Xi Jinping made state visits to Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba. While in Brazil, Xi attended the sixth BRICS Summit, as well as the China-Latin America and Caribbean Summit. The visit is helping to form the basis of a new pattern of China-Latin America relations, strengthen cooperation among BRICS countries, facilitate China’s influence in the Western Hemisphere and improve the structure of China’s global diplomacy. Although Americans have predominantly been focused on the MH17 plane crash and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the US still regards Latin America and the Caribbean as its backyard and there have been a number of reports on President Xi’s visit. The major concerns include the followings. 

First, in view of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West, some believe that China and Russia’s visit to Latin America will exert pressure on the US. The Washington Post article “China, Russia leaders seek South American inroads,” suggests that the US government feels pressure when the leaders of China and Russia visit Latin America. In addition, the visits underscore the mix of ideology and economics that allows the two powers to expand their influence in America’s backyard. 

Second, along with China’s increasing influence and the US decreasing influence in the region, Latin American countries generally see China as a countermeasure to US hegemony in the region. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs article “The Dragon in Uncle Sam’s Backyard: China in Latin America” argues that, with China’s emergence on the global stage, many Latin American countries have welcomed Chinese investment with open arms, as they see China as a countermeasure to US hegemony in the region. As Chinese investment, commerce, and influence rise in Latin America, the United States’ presence, while still dominant, is slowly eroding. Assuming that U.S. policy towards the region remains unchanged, given enough time, it is highly likely that China could gain more influence. 

Third, the creation of the BRICS Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement reflects the emerging powers’ intention and determination to challenge the existing world order. The Associated Press reported that the BRICS markets can no longer tolerate US dominance over the financial system, and therefore decided to establish their own “World Bank” and “International Monetary Fund.” Harold Trinkunas of Brookings argues that the BRICS are seeking alternatives to the existing world order, and share a common wish to have a greater say in global economic policy-making. Each country suffered from the western dominance over the financial system. In order to fulfill the harsh requirements of the IMF, those countries either confronted Western economic sanctions, or were forced to cut their budget. 

The above three views reflect a biased perception of China, a product of realist logic and a “zero-sum” mindset. Instead, President Xi’s trip to Latin America should be understood in the following four ways. 

First and foremost, while strengthening ties with Russia, Brazil and other emerging countries, China is actively working to build a new model of major-country relations with the US. The Chinese and Russian leaders made stopover visits to Latin American countries after attending the BRICS Summit, and it is purely accidental that some of their programs overlapped. In handling international hot issues, China acts in accordance with the principle of “being objective and fair”, and makes judgments based on facts. Besides, China has always stood by its “non-alliance” policy. Therefore, the claim that “China is pressuring the US in alliance with Russia” is a bit biased and is not the mainstream opinion of the US academia. 

Second, President Xi’s visit to Latin America has focused on economic issues. President Xi has emphasized cooperation, friendship and development in visiting these countries. There is no attempt to strengthen any kind of ideological alliance or stir up “anti-US” sentiments. A Financial Times article entitled “Xi Jinping’s Latin American trip places trade ahead of ideology” also points out that the US is unduly concerned with ideological matters. 

Thirdly, to set up the BRICS bank is not to subvert the existing global economic order. Rather, it will provide an impetus to the reform process in the Western-dominated economic governance mechanism. An article published in Foreign Policy suggests that the BRICS’ development bank is moving fast because the BRICS countries want to show their sincere efforts, partly out of frustration that the US is failing to deliver its promises. In an effort to pacify the developing world’s dissatisfaction, America and other western countries claimed in 2010 that the proportion of developing countries represented would be elevated to 6%. However, the US Congress is giving reform a hard time, since it views it as hampering US interests.  

Last but not least, China’s strengthening cooperation with Latin American countries will benefit regional economic prosperity and development, and is also in the interest of the US. As US-Latin America relations have a long history, the US should be confident of its influence in this region. However, the “sphere of influence” era is long gone, and the US should be open-minded towards China-Latin America relations. Latin America could positively contribute to China-US relations instead of being a source of suspicion between the two countries. China and the US should work to act as responsible states in Latin America, the Asia-Pacific, Africa and so forth, to seek the best model of co-existence and cooperation, to surpass and go beyond a “zero-sum” game, and to promote a model of major-country relations under the “win-win” framework. 

Dong Chunling is an Assistant Researcher at the Institute of American Studies of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. Sun Chenghao is the editor of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.


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