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Today, Latin America is just as polarized as the rest of the West, riven by bitter debates and Twitter wars over everything from “gender ideology” to how best to revive economies ravaged by COVID-19. But there is one emerging consensus on which many Latin American politicians on both the left and the right surprisingly agree: in the escalating global confrontation between China and the United States, their countries should pursue a truly independent or nonaligned path. This posture, which appears set to deepen following elections this year in bellwether giants Brazil and Colombia, is arguably the region’s most important foreign policy development since the end of the Cold War.
The drift toward a middle ground between China and the United States began in the early years of this century, well before China had amassed anything like the influence it enjoys today. Just as a long period of alignment with Washington and an accompanying swing toward democracy and open markets began to fray, China began its extraordinary incursion into the region. Chinese trade with Latin America and the Caribbean soared from $18 billion in 2002 to a whopping $450 billion in 2021, driven by demand for commodities such as soy, iron ore, and crude oil. In recent years, even right-of-center, pro-American leaders in the region, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, and Colombian President Iván Duque, have shrugged off repeated warnings from Washington about the risks of economic entanglement with China and have welcomed a flood of Chinese investment and technology, including equipment for 5G networks in several countries, lithium fields in Chile, and the construction of a new subway in Bogotá. Today, China is the second-largest trading partner for Latin America as a whole and the biggest trading partner for Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay. Just this month, the presidents of Ecuador and Argentina traveled to Beijing, with the former seeking to negotiate a new trade agreement and the latter announcing that Argentina would become the biggest country in the region to date to fund infrastructure improvements by participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Throughout this dramatic rise, the Chinese have been welcomed by many as “the new gringos”—a fresh-faced, alternative partner to the United States, free of the baggage accumulated over 200-plus years of often imperialist U.S. behavior. But until recently, there was a quiet belief in most Latin American capitals, as well as in Washington, that if push came to shove—if the world fractured into blocs in the wake of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, for example—most countries would ultimately fall in line with the United States, as they mostly did during the Cold War. Latin America is, after all, considered a part of the Western world. It is overwhelmingly democratic and harbors deep business and cultural ties with the United States—where, not insignificantly, a considerable percentage of its population lives.
But several recent developments appear to be changing that calculus. The repeated mistreatment of traditional U.S. allies including Mexico during Donald Trump’s presidency, followed by the shocking images of the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, caused many Latin American leaders to fundamentally question Washington’s long-term reliability as a strategic partner. The breakdown of support for free trade in both the Democratic and Republican Parties fueled a perception that China may be the only game in town for new export markets and investments that can drive badly needed economic growth in the wake of the pandemic, which has hit Latin America especially hard. Although some argue that this realignment is shortsighted and ignores China’s own flaws as a strategic partner, it is hard to escape the sense that a tipping point has been reached—and that long-standing assumptions about the so-called U.S. sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere now need to be revisited.
An important new book, Active Non-Alignment and Latin America: A Doctrine for the New Century, with contributions from several leading policy figures around the region, including Argentine Defense Minister Jorge Taiana and former Foreign Ministers Jorge Castañeda of Mexico and Celso Amorim of Brazil, helps explain the evolving thinking inside the region. In addition to their growing concerns about the strength of U.S. democratic institutions, the authors cite the United States’ 2017 withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (to which Chile, Mexico, and Peru were signatories) as a turning point. That decision, plus the Trump administration’s repeated threats of using punitive tariffs as a political tool, led many policymakers across Latin America to conclude that they need to diversify their trading relationships to rely less on the United States. President Joe Biden’s recent political struggles and the increasing possibility of Trump’s return to the White House in 2024 have further diminished hopes that the dysfunction of recent years was a temporary blip.
But local events are also driving the change. The 2010s were a decade of stagnant economies, social unrest, and democratic decay in Latin America. The region was also one of the hardest hit by COVID-19, accounting for about 30 percent of the world’s confirmed deaths despite having just eight percent of the global population. The region’s economies contracted seven percent on average in 2020; only the eurozone saw comparable devastation. Although there were many reasons for Latin America’s troubles, from high inequality to underfunded health-care systems, some strategists have concluded that the region was poorly positioned in terms of its international alliances, noting that the United States initially hoarded vaccines for itself instead of making them available to its southern allies. “The time has come to put an end to the growing marginality of the region,” the book’s editors write in the introduction. “This involves assuming control of its own destiny, and not leaving it in the hands of others.”
Upcoming elections in Latin America are likely to push the region further towards China.
In practice, the “Non-Alignment” in the book’s title is not intended to be an exact rehash of the movement founded in the 1960s by India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, which advertised itself as an alternative to the polarization of the Cold War but in reality often served as a forum for thinly veiled anti-Americanism. The modern-day concept currently gaining traction in Latin America, articulated in the book by the Argentine scholar Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, involves a foreign policy that is “equidistant” between Washington and Beijing, neither subservient to nor hostile toward either. Other contributors to the book tout the need for greater economic integration within Latin America itself as well as with other countries in Africa and Asia, expanding on the “South-South” relationships that came into vogue in the early years of this century. Still other strategists cite the need to cultivate European countries as partners to avoid depending too much on either Washington or Beijing.
Some will roll their eyes at such ideas, dismissing them as coming from a loud minority of left-of-center activists who never miss a chance to malign the United States. But when the publication I edit, Americas Quarterly, recently commissioned a series of articles from influential voices covering the region’s political spectrum on the question of how Latin American countries should deal with China and the United States, we expected a vigorous debate but ended up instead with fairly repetitive variations of the same idea: the region must avoid taking sides. Bolsonaro, who as a candidate in 2018 frequently maligned China and even visited Taiwan, has mostly avoided confronting Beijing as president—and refused the Biden administration’s entreaties to completely exclude Huawei as a supplier for Brazil’s 5G network. Uruguay’s center-right President Luis Lacalle Pou announced in September that he would open talks with Beijing over a free-trade deal, envisioning his relatively small country as a “front door” for economic integration between China and the rest of South America. Officials in Colombia, traditionally Washington’s closest ally on the continent, have floated the possibility of joining the BRI before Duque, a conservative, leaves office in August. Mexico has been in some ways an outlier amid the regional trend, given its especially close trading relationship with the United States. Yet last year, following a conversation with his Chinese counterpart, the Mexican foreign minister announced plans to “expand the strategic association of both nations.” Argentina earlier this month signed a deal with a state-owned Chinese company to build an $8 billion nuclear power plant, prompting a warning from the top Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who urged Buenos Aires to “reverse course.”
Upcoming elections seem likely to push the region even further in this direction, starting with Latin America’s largest economy. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was Brazil’s president from 2003 to 2010 and is currently favored to defeat Bolsonaro in October and return to power, made waves last December when he said South American countries should form a bloc with the European Union “to face up to the two giants . . . the United States and China.” Amorim, whom many believe could become foreign minister again if Lula wins, recently said closer ties with Beijing were “inevitable,” although he carefully added that Brazil would not be “opting for China instead of the United States.” All the leading candidates in the presidential race in Colombia, which will take place in May, seem likely to be less tethered to the United States than was Duque—particularly the front-runner, Gustavo Petro. Gabriel Boric, the 36-year-old former student protest leader who will become Chile’s president in March, has signaled that he may not ratify the trade deal that succeeded the TPP, which many see as an economic alliance against China.
One could argue that Latin American politicians are letting their feelings about the United States blind them to Beijing’s record of mistreating allies in Africa and elsewhere, and getting both the timing and substance of this emerging posture wrong. Many other leaders around the world, including in Australia, East Asia, and parts of Europe, are becoming more skeptical of China, not less, following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s more authoritarian turn, belligerence in the South China Sea, and crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Closer to home, Chinese loans have provided critical support to Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela, contributing to the country’s humanitarian collapse and raising broader questions about the transparency of Chinese capital in the region. Some warn that, by trying to straddle the United States and China, Latin America may effectively miss out on opportunities from both—and be excluded from supply chains and investments that could deliver badly needed economic growth in the wake of the pandemic. But it is also true that advice on China from American interlocutors is almost unanimously ignored inside the region, dismissed as little more than self-interested protestations from a flailing former hegemon.
The small group of U.S. policymakers who deal with Latin America are certainly aware of the challenge; warnings about Beijing’s rise in the region have become as rote as complaints about Beltway traffic. The upcoming Summit of the Americas, which will gather presidents from around the hemisphere in Los Angeles in early June, may provide a forum for Washington to at least partially regroup. But a true breakthrough would require far more ambition than currently seems to be in the cards. The United States could, for example, revive discussions for a hemispheric trade bloc that have been dormant—but that is a clear nonstarter for both Biden and Trump’s Republican Party. Washington could also pull some countries closer (as well as address the U.S. labor shortage) by significantly expanding guest worker programs, but that seems unlikely given the intense anti-immigration sentiment that pervades much of the U.S. electorate. The very best thing the United States could do to compete with China would be to put its own domestic house in order and recover confidence in the democratic norms and values that most Latin Americans share. Until then, the chatter one increasingly hears inside the region about there being little practical difference between Washington and Beijing may get even louder.
The idea of Latin American countries pursuing an independent foreign policy in line with their own sovereign interests should not be a surprise to anyone. But in doing so, these countries are upending long-held expectations about how they will behave in the coming years in terms of their political, economic, and military alliances. It is hard to escape the sensation that the global geopolitical map is being redrawn. Add Latin American loyalty and support to the growing list of things that Washington can no longer take for granted.