Latin American nations have been distancing themselves from their neighbor to the north and joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, US senators discussed on Thursday during a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing.
The senators spoke of the looming threat of Chinese influence in Latin America – a region which was once considered their own backyard but has since been wooed by Beijing’s deep pockets and big infrastructure projects.
“China has a strategy. We don’t have a plan,” Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) explained, while officials from several US agencies discussed their strategies. These consisted mainly of discussing the shortcomings in Chinese projects as well as the US options, which are supposedly more labor-friendly and have stronger environmental and anticorruption regulations.
Officials with the State Department, USAID, and International Development Finance Corporation brought up examples of projects in which apparent Chinese corner-cutting had led to negative outcomes – including Coca Codo Sinclair, a Chinese-built and -financed dam in Ecuador that has been plagued by cracks and other mishaps since its opening in 2016 – as an example of “The PRC prioritizes[zing]Only the PRC’s prosperity, sometimes to the disadvantage of local residents.” Witnesses cited a huge uptick in illegal fishing by Chinese vessels in Caribbean, Argentinian, Chilean, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian waters.
A survey recently conducted by Vanderbilt University showed regional trust in China declining by 18 percentage points from 2012 to 2021 while trust in the US grew 18 percentage points, leaving China lagging behind with a trust rating of 38% to the US’ 55%. Experts told South China Morning Post that there is little evidence of US-built projects or efforts in the region. However, Ecuador and Argentina signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative in February and are prepared to accept quality risks for the assurance of Chinese money.
Beijing’s trade with the region has soared by over $300 billion from 2002 to 2020, with $160 billion directly invested during that time. Twenty-one of 31 Latin American nations have joined the Belt and Road. China also financed five infrastructure projects in other countries. Several countries were persuaded by China to end diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a sign of Beijing’s increasing proximity.
The US is having trouble filling the eight ambassador positions in Latin America. Eight of these appointments are being held up by political disputes. Four others remain vacant without any nominee. The country’s attention is clearly directed elsewhere, as even existing programs for regional investment are underfunded, witnesses said. Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tennessee) lamented that China was “Literally eating our lunch” in the hemisphere once considered the US’ default sphere of influence under the Monroe Doctrine – and all that with only 9% of Belt and Road spending being devoted to Latin America and the Caribbean as of last year.
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For its part, China does not appear to be threatened by its rival’s realization that it has competition, pointing out that Washington has long taken Latin America’s allegiance for granted. “The United States has regarded Latin America and the Caribbean as its own ‘backyard’, and has been putting pressure and threats at every turn,” Chinese US embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu told the SCMP. “What is the difference between a true friend and a fake friend?.”
“According to me, the country concerned will reach a right judgment,” he said.