China is investing in Latin America, and the US is jealous

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An extraordinary change in attitude toward China has taken hold in Washington over the past several months from jovial nudging to full-on confrontation on trade and pretty much everything else.

Beginning with the National Defense Strategy in January, a trio of China-critics surrounding the president have built the case that China presents a threat to U.S. interests in every sector, culminating in Vice President Pence’s outlining the new China policy at the Hudson Institute on Oct. 4.

{mosads}What is so extraordinary is that this change in attitude has opened veritable floodgates of denunciations against China: Journalists, think-tankers and other scholars are virtually falling over each other to suggest that they had known all along that China was a dishonest competitor.

Criticizing China has become the new norm, even though it is really a spectacular case of the pot calling the kettle black — all major powers believe they can make exceptions to the rule.

It is really much simpler: China’s wealth and size put it in a position to make new friends, and Washington is uncomfortable with that.

“Thou shalt not have any other gods before Me,” is the message the U.S. State Department is now carrying out to the rest of the world, including its southern neighbors. 

It was only last February that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that “Latin America does not need new imperial powers,” perhaps sardonically implying that the current imperial power, the United States, was perfectly adequate.

In turn, when current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Panama that “when China comes calling it’s not always for the good of your citizens,” he seemed to forget that the U.S. presence has often been controversial: For over a century, Washington repeatedly and violently interfered with the citizens and governments of Latin America.

What’s more, Pompeo ignored the reality that China’s proposal to fund and build infrastructure is in the region’s vital interest.

Japan is no friend of China’s, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recognized that getting involved in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hallmark Belt and Road Initiative is the best way to help shape it.

The U.S. instead rejects the Chinese-led initiative and proposes to “counter” it through the BUILD Act. Physical connectivity is essential for countries to ensure economic development and social stability, something no regional or external power has been willing or able to bring about in Latin America (or in Africa, for that matter).

There is no downside to connecting cities and ports with government-financed public goods. If the U.S. can contribute to this process so much the better. Competition is healthy as long as neither side tries to eliminate its rival.

Both Tillerson’s and Pompeo’s statements build on the unhelpful neologism used in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which described China’s approach as “predatory economics” and “debt-trap diplomacy.” This erroneously suggests that Beijing deliberately acts to the detriment of recipient countries. 

Instead, China may well be in a position to help resolve the dearth of infrastructure in Latin America, a fundamental issue that could sustainably raise living standards in one of the poorest and most unequal regions of the world.

That said, China’s state media is mistaken when it suggests that “Latin American countries know how to weigh their interests.”

Although some have put their minds to the task of balancing their relations with the world’s major powers — Chile and Panama, for example — most are too deeply mired in the domestic conflicts of their divided societies to define their broader interests, let alone pursue solutions in the global arena.  

If the U.S. did a little less bullying and dividing and a little more nurturing and constructive engaging, it would make far better use of its diplomats and the thick web of connections it has in the Western Hemisphere.

Benjamin Creutzfeldt is a fellow in the Latin America program and the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. 

Tags Belt and Road initiative China–United States relations infrastructure investment Mike Pompeo Mike Pompeo Rex Tillerson Rex Tillerson United States US-Latin America relations

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