Latin American and Caribbean countries should force China to follow the rule of law to preserve the integrity of its institutions.
Chinese involvement in Latin America is largely a result of China’s 21st century rise as a global economic and political power. China’s total trade with the region grew from $17 billion in 2002 to nearly $306 billion by 2018, effectively becoming the region’s second most important trading partner (and first for several Latin American countries). China’s growth in the region stems largely from its need to access natural resources and markets critical to maintain its economic growth. At the same time, Beijing also looks to the region to bolster its global political influence in multilateral organizations like the World Trade Organization and the United Nations, as well as regional organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States and the Inter-American Development Bank.
From the strategic geopolitical perspective, Chinese engagement in the Western Hemisphere is part of its broader global efforts aimed at shaping a world consistent with China’s authoritarian political model. Beijing sees the dominant democratic world order as a persistent threat to its own survival as an authoritarian political regime. The ongoing violent protests in Hong Kong, a reaction to Beijing’s overreach into Hong Kong policies, serve to reinforce the persistent threat that democratic freedoms pose to authoritarian regimes like China. But despite the strategic and even aspirational intent to China’s rise, there still remains elements of opportunism that guide its global — and hemispheric — engagement. Chinese activities across Latin America and the Caribbean vary in size and scope and it is important to keep in mind that the region is in fact part of a global effort on the part of Beijing to increase its overall economic, political, and security influence, and secure geostrategic footholds in important regions around the world — like Latin America and the Caribbean.
To that end, Chinese growing economic and political engagement is challenging Latin American and Caribbean strategic interests in three major areas. First, Chinese economic practices are increasing Latin American and Caribbean nations’ dependencies on China and challenge nations’ sovereignty. Second, economic practices combined with the proliferation of Chinese surveillance and IT technologies undermine the efficacy of democratic institutions and expand Chinese influence across economic, political, and security landscapes. Third, Beijing’s complex information campaign is leveraging Chinese and regional media platforms. Confucius Institutes, and overseas ethnic Chinese communities purge anti-Beijing sentiment and increase its soft power influence across the region.
Democratic governance and political autonomy challenged
Over the last decade and a half, China has grown into an important economic partner to many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. China’s economic engagement with the region has encouraged and enabled many Latin American and Caribbean nations to pursue more agency in their respective international diplomatic and economic activity, to the benefit of the region. In exchange, China extracts raw materials and accesses foreign markets that fuel its own economic growth and satisfy the domestic demands of its population. There is nothing intentionally nefarious about that and not all Chinese economic engagements are designed to undermine the sovereignty and security of nations in the region. So, the concern isn’t that China is pursuing economic ties with the region; rather, the problem is that China is not doing business according to the democratic principles that the region has fought so hard to uphold. In many cases, China’s business practices undermine already struggling democratic institutions by inducing corruption and circumventing transparency and accountability — all of which are core pillars of democratic governance. Chinese economic engagements also undermine rule of law and bypass important environmental and labor standards.
Beijing leverages a mix of economic and political practices designed to persuade Latin American countries to align with China’s domestic and foreign policy objectives. Beijing uses trade and investment as means of influencing Latin American and Caribbean countries to provide political support for Beijing — for example Beijing’s One China Policy — as well as favorable conditions for Chinese businesses. For example, China uses the attractiveness of its large market and financing — often at the direction of Beijing — to obtain work projects and enter markets on its terms, force partnerships from which it can steal critical technology, and use its resources to advance its own position, especially in strategic industries like telecommunications, agriculture, artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data, as noted in Made in China 2025 (the state-led industrial policy launched in May 2015 seeks to move China away from being the world’s “factory” and into producing higher value products and services). And of course, Chinese firms aggressively court Latin American and Caribbean public officials and economic elite through bribery and quid pro quo arrangements that break with the region’s recent gains in countering public corruption.
Chinese banks — China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China — have become the largest lenders in Latin America and play a critical role in charming and grooming Latin American and Caribbean nations through loans with manageable rates. However, it is the accumulation of this debt that could, over time, weigh on governments and compromise their respective autonomy in political, economic, and security decision-making. In Latin America, accumulated loans have surpassed $140 billion from 2005 to 2018. Venezuela followed by Brazil, Ecuador, and Argentina are the top recipients of Chinese loans.
Cheap and risky technologies
Chinese investments in telecommunications, artificial intelligence, and other critical technologies represent a concern to the hemisphere due to security vulnerabilities in Chinese technologies, the potential that these technologies could serve as intelligence collection platforms against the U.S. and its partners, and questions about the overall impacts on digital sovereignty and norms. Further, Chinese investment in surveillance technology is likely to affect the digital sovereignty and norms of Latin America.
In particular, China has installed surveillance systems in Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama, Uruguay, and Argentina. According to Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, the spread of these systems can normalize the type of privacy violations authoritarian states commit against their populations. He argues that these systems can be used to acquire vast amounts of data on the United States and the region. It is possible that there are backdoors in the surveillance systems that allow China to collect information as national authorities use these technologies. This could place information of Latin American citizens in the hands of the Chinese government.
Suppressing the anti-Beijing sentiment
China is also engaged in complex information campaigns that erode Western sources of information, challenge Western narratives, and promote Chinese soft power. For China, information operations in the region are viewed as vital to combating dissident movements such as the Falun Gong, further isolating Taiwan (where nearly half of all countries that recognize Taiwan reside in Latin America and the Caribbean), masking Chinese human rights issues in Tibet and with Uyghur Muslims, and countering pro-democracy movements (take Venezuela as an example).
Using Chinese and regional media outlets and leveraging the more than 40 Confucius Institutes in the region, China presents alternative views on a wide range of topics. It also uses Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms to promote Mandarin language — especially among overseas ethnic Chinese. This enables Beijing to communicate to and through vital overseas ethnic Chinese communities as a means of deepening organic influence in host countries. China also leverages its China-Latin America & Caribbean Press Center, which hosts journalists from Latin America in China for extended stays of five to six months before going back home. Regarding the success of these initiatives, polling indicates a steady increase in Chinese favorability in the region — in some cases surpassing the United States. While this result can’t be traced solely to Chinese information operations, it is likely that Chinese information campaigns have strengthened its overall brand in the region.
So, what should the region do to preserve the integrity of its institutions? Force China to follow the rule of law. The hemisphere has worked hard to deepen democratic reforms, build resiliency in its political and economic institutions, defend against corruption, protect its environment, and advocate for labor practices that strengthen working classes all across the region.