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In the Cold War with China, Latin America is neutral

The faces of government officials from Chile and China are reflected in glass.
AP Photo/Esteban Felix
Chile’s former Energy Minister Juan Carlos Jobet, left, Chile’s Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt, second from left, and China’s Xie Zhenhua, third from left, are reflected in glass during their tour of the Quilapilún solar plant, a joint venture by China and Chile, in Colina, Chile, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.

By rights, the IX Summit of the Americas to be held in Los Angeles June 6-10 should have been the perfect occasion for President Joe Biden to showcase his understanding of and commitment to the cause of the Americas. Having visited Latin America 16 times as vice president, he knows the region well. It could also have highlighted the differences with his predecessor, who only once set foot in the region (for the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires) and did not attend the VIII Summit of the Americas held in Lima, Peru. 

Instead, the Biden White House is scrambling to avoid a diplomatic debacle.

Indications that Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela will not be invited to the summit have gone down badly. The presidents of Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras and the heads of government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations have said that, under these conditions, they will not attend the summit.

China, which by now has held three China-Latin America Ministerial Forums at the level of foreign ministers, has called out the United States for discriminating among Latin American countries, pointing out that Washington is stuck in a Cold War mindset. 

The truth is that the push to make ideological distinctions between democracies and autocracies misses the point. Latin American countries prefer to form partnerships with both the United States and China. A recent poll by Latinobarómetro in 10 Latin American countries shows that while 44 percent consider the United States a superior development model to China (at 29 percent), in areas such as trade and investment, infrastructure and digital technology, more Latin Americans prefer to partner with China than with the United States.

Latin American and Caribbean countries want to keep their options open. Vaccine diplomacy is a case in point. Although Chinese vaccines in the region have garnered headlines, every country in the region has contracted with multiple source countries, diversifying to avoid the risks of supply chain surprises. Most countries are buying Chinese vaccines in about the same proportion as their general merchandise imports. In fact, the country with the highest share of Chinese vaccine contracts — Chile — did so under the leadership of conservative President Sebastián Piñera, who has kept strong relations with both the Trump and Biden administrations.

To be sure, 21 Latin American and Caribbean countries have signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and six have joined the Beijing-based Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank. But these moves are happening across the political spectrum. They include countries with strong trade and investment links with the U.S., like Ecuador and Uruguay. Rather than signaling a choice to weaken their bonds with their Northern neighbors, this shows the basic economic truth of small, middle-income countries: Diversification brings stability. 

As one of us wrote in the book, “Active Non-Alignment and Latin America,” countries in the region have prioritized their own interests, resisting pressure to line up solely either with Washington, Beijing or other great powers. The neutral position of Latin American countries like Argentina, Brazil and Mexico on the war in Ukraine and on Russian sanctions has shown that active non-alignment is not a distant future-oriented policy proposal, but simply an empirical finding of what is happening in Latin America today. The region shows no appetite for being cornered into any of the competing camps of an incipient Second Cold War, as the guest list of the Summit of the Americas appears to attempt. 

A more realistic approach would focus on shared goals. For example, Latin American and Caribbean countries recognize their enormous infrastructure deficit, including in transitioning to renewable energy. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently estimated that the Latin American and Caribbean region will need to invest $2.2 trillion (or roughly 40 percent of regional GDP) to build and maintain infrastructure to meet the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

While China has traditionally held cost advantages in solar, wind and hydropower facilities, Biden’s Build Back Better World has also promised to channel capital towards these goals. The infrastructure gap in Latin America is so large that there is more than enough room for investors from both sides of the Pacific to participate.

Secondly, China’s membership in multilateral bodies such as the IDB has triggered pushback from the U.S. and the US-nominated IDB president. A more realistic response would welcome China’s participation as an opportunity to jointly meet the challenges of the day and boost U.S. firms overseas. China’s infrastructure funds at the IDB take open bidding for contractors from all members, including the U.S. By harnessing Chinese capital in a way that includes U.S. firms and honors the IDB’s world-class social and environmental governance standards, these funds could scale up development finance, promote open and transparent project bidding and incentivize joint oversight through the multilateral governance of the board.

In the last few days, announcements of the lessening of sanctions imposed on Cuba, including travel restrictions and cash transfers to the island, as well as U.S. visa processing, together with indications Washington may consider inviting a mid-level Cuban representative to the Los Angeles summit, show a retreat from the hardline positions that had painted the U.S. into a corner and threatened the success of the summit. Similar signals are being made with Venezuela. This is welcome, and points in the right direction.

Yet, ultimately, the run-up to the IX Summit of the Americas shows that the zero-sum, exclusionary approach to the development challenges of the Americas initiated by the Trump administration and continued by Biden is a dead-end street. What is needed is an inclusionary approach that respects the enormous diversity of this vast continent and works with all parties on such difficult issues as economic reactivation, pandemic control and climate change mitigation.

Jorge Heine is a research professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, a former Chilean ambassador to China and the author of, “Active Non-Alignment and Latin America.” Rebecca Ray is a senior academic researcher at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center.

Tags Joe Biden Politics of the United States Sebastián Piñera Summit of the Americas US-China relations US-China tensions US-Latin America relations

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