In America's Backyard: China's Rising Influence In Latin America

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chinese President Xi Jinping
Wang Xiaoxia

BEIJING - China is busy in America's backyard.

Over the past five years, Chinese businesses have been expanding their footprint in Latin America in a number of ways, beginning with enhanced trade to ensure a steady supply of bulk commodities such as oil, copper and soybeans. At this year's Boao Forum for Asia, for the first time a Latin American sub-forum was created that included the participation of several heads of state from the region.

Since 2011, China has overtaken the Netherlands to become Latin America’s second biggest investor behind the United States. China has signed a series of large cooperation agreements with Latin American countries in such fields as finance, resources and energy.

According to the latest statistics of the General Administration of Customs of China, Sino-Latin American trade grew in 2012 to a total of $261.2 billion, a year-on-year increase of 8.18%.

This trend risks undermining the position of the United States as Latin America’s single dominant trading partner. In 2011, the U.S.-Latin American trade volume was $351 billion.

Some prominent Chinese have condemned the United States' high-profile Return to Asia strategy, with its intention of “containing China's front door.” Shouldn’t the United States, which put forward the Monroe Doctrine two centuries ago, also question how China is quietly arriving in America’s backyard?

An American blind spot?

In their book America's Blind Spot: Chavez, Oil, and U.S. Security, Andres Cala and Michael J. Economides avoid the usual patter of linking South America’s "China factor" with some sordid conspiracy theory. Instead, they investigate Latin America’s subtle choice between China and the United States, attributing Washington's weakened influence in the region to its failure in foreign policy and economic development -- while China rises on the back of globalization.

Since 1823, when America put forward the Monroe Doctrine and declared its sphere of influence to Europeans, it has maintained the unique position of the United States in the Americas.

Military intervention has always served as the most important tool for the United States. Especially after the start of the Cold War, in order to curb Communism from taking root in Latin America, the U.S. used military means largely without restraint.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States faced new external challenges such as the threat of global terrorism. Latin America’s strategic significance has quickly slipped to a secondary and more local ranking. The United States has shifted its focus in Latin America to specific issues such as illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

The “realism” that ran through America’s foreign policy during the Cold War has gradually transformed towards “idealism,” which in consequence weakens its influence in Latin America.

Under the doctrine of realism, America broke any illusion of moral constraint in its foreign interventions; the protection of American interests was its pragmatic principle. Washington didn’t care that some Latin American countries were dictatorial or that they violated human rights, as long as their leaders firmly stood on the side of the anti-Communist camp.

Since adopting idealism, America considers that whatever is best for itself is also best for the rest of the world. Its foreign policy is aimed at maintaining democracy, human rights and a free market economy around the world. America began to demand that its former dictatorial allies quit their attachment to power and carry out a transition to democracy. Since 1989, the U.S. has pushed Latin American countries -- many facing a severe debt crisis -- to accept the “Washington Consensus” oriented by market economy theory.

The ultimate goal set by this theory may not be a problem. However, it did not pull Latin America out of the quagmire of its “lost decade” of the 1980s. In the 1990s, Latin America suffered another severe economic downturn, which exacerbated the division between the rich and the poor -- leading to serious social problems. The idealism exported by the United States intensified the existing contradictions in Latin American society, and eventually led to the downfall of most of the brutal totalitarian military governments.

China as a new favorite

Initially, China’s activities in Latin America were limited to the diplomatic level. By providing funds and assisting in infrastructure constructions, China managed to interrupt diplomatic ties between poor Latin countries and Taiwan. Since then, with China's economic boom, the supply of energy and resources has gradually become a problem that plagues China -- and its exchanges with Latin America thus are endowed with real substantive purpose.

Among the numerous needs of China, the demand for oil has always been the most powerful driving force. In the past 30 years, China has consumed one-third of the world's new oil production and become the world's second-largest oil importer. More than half of China's oil demand depends on imports, which increases the instability of its energy security. Diversification is inevitable. In this context, Latin America and its huge reserves and production capacity naturally became a destination for China.

China must better protect its energy supply, and can't just play the simple role of consumer. It must also help solidify the important links of the petroleum industry supply chain. Indeed, the China National Petroleum Corporation frequently appears in Latin American countries, and China’s investment and trade in the Latin American countries are also focused on its energy sector.

In the opinion of many European and American scholars, China's current practice isn’t much different from that of Western colonizers of the last century. These scholars believe that China doesn’t care about local human rights or the state of democracy when dealing with countries. All China is interested in is establishing long-term, stable economic relations. This realistic path is exactly opposite to that of America's newfound idealism. Thus China has become a close collaborator of certain Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, that are in sharp conflict with the United States.

The global financial crisis of 2008 was a chance for China to become an increasingly important player in Latin American. As Europe and the United States were caught in a financial quagmire, China, with nearly $3 trillion of foreign exchange reserves as backing, embarked on "funds-for-assets" transactions with Latin American countries.

So what does China want exactly in entering Latin American? Is it to obtain a stable supply of energy and resources, and thus inadvertently acquire political influence? Or the other way round?

Presumably most U.S. foreign policy-makers are well aware of the answer.

China's involvement in the Latin American continent doesn’t constitute a threat to the United States, but brings benefits. It is precisely because China has reached "loans-for-oil" swap agreements with Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and other countries that it brings much-needed funds to these oil-producing countries in South America. Not only have these funds been used in the field of oil production, but they have also safeguarded the energy supply of the United States, as well as stabilized these countries' livelihood -- and to a certain extent reduced the impact of illegal immigration and the drug trade on the U.S.

For South America, China and the United States, this is not a zero-sum game, but a multiple choice of mutual benefits and synergies. Even if China has become the Latin American economy’s new upstart, it is still not in a position to challenge the strong and diverse influence that the United States has accumulated over two centuries in the region.

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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