China has become a permanent geopolitical player in Latin America. A key region in China’s foreign policy, there is at least as much brand awareness in Latin America of Alibaba as of Amazon, and of Huawei as of Apple.
The United States still views the rest of the Western Hemisphere as its historic backyard and tends to take its hegemony in the region for granted. But China’s activities in Latin America Have long showcased the growing global reach of Beijing's ambitions.
The region is an integral part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to extend its influence through investments in public infrastructure projects ranging from roads to nuclear reactors. As payment, it issues loans that governments sometimes are unable to pay back.
Still, many countries are satisfied with the work that China has done. In anticipation of loans and projects promised by China, some have severed relations with Taiwan to formally establish them with Beijing.
Between the incoherent response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and the Trump administration’s ambivalent foreign policy in the region, signs point to the coronavirus as an opportunity for China to further deepen its ties with Latin American countries.
Even as it shouldered blame for the spread of the virus, China wasted no time in sending aid to the region, where countries have struggled to keep cases from overwhelming their health systems. As early as March, the Chinese government donated medical supplies (masks, tests, and ventilators) to countries in Latin America as needed. In July, Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced a $1 billion loan to Latin America and the Caribbean for Chinese-developed COVID-19 vaccines.
The aid from China comes at a time when the region is economically and socially vulnerable and may increasingly lean on its relationships with China to ensure future stability. It is widely believed that much of the region is teetering on the edge of a pandemic-induced recession caused by falls in foreign direct investment, the decline in global demand for commodities, and the effective shutdown of international tourism.
The donations, though appreciated, were seen as too modest considering China’s wealth of financial resources. But despite criticism, the quickness of the China’s response stood in stark contrast with that from the United States. At first, the U.S. government spent only a fraction of available funding for assistance to Latin American countries.
More substantial amounts of U.S. aid, often in the form of healthcare assistance, have since reached Latin America. Assistance from China tends to come in the form of medical supplies, though China has also outspent the United States in total aid funding.
The U.S.-China relationship, always fraught, has been fractured by COVID-19. Simultaneously, the United States has not prioritized its bilateral relationships with Latin American countries in matters of national security. Latin America has been increasingly caught between the two powers, but many countries may now decide that stronger ties with China are more advantageous than appeasing the traditional hegemon.
If Washington continues to place lesser importance on the region during the pandemic, that may effectively mean ceding much more influence to China. Likewise, the extent to which the rest of the Western Hemisphere may distance itself from the United States should not be underestimated.
Sarah White is a research associate at Arlington’s Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author’s own.