A recent article published in the Washington Examiner, “China unveils plan to ‘take over’ Latin America”, assures us that the Chinese Communist Party has unveiled a plan of action and cooperation aimed at exerting greater influence in the region and thus threatening U.S. interests in Latin America.
With a somewhat alarmist tone, the author of the opinion column, Joel Gehrke, quotes U.S. Army War College scholar Evan Ellis, who states that “The Chinese are not saying, ‘We want to take over Latin America,’ but they are clearly setting out a strategy of multidimensional engagement that, if successful, would significantly expand their influence and generate enormous intelligence concerns for the United States”.
Likewise, and in the same vein, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio states that the Chinese Communist Party seeks to deepen ties between China and Latin America, particularly with ‘anti-U.S. elements’. “Beijing is trying to outdo the United States in every sector,” the senator states, “and we must take this threat seriously.”
Said ‘action plan’ was reportedly unveiled on December 3 last year at a China-CELAC summit. The plan presumably seeks not only to strengthen economic ties between Beijing and the region but also to deepen political and security cooperation. Mateo Haydar, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, concludes “There are absolute ambitions for China to become the dominant influence in Latin America. The challenge is comprehensive, and there is absolutely a military and security interest there … That threat is growing, and it’s a different kind of threat than what we saw with the Soviet threat.”
Of course, China’s position on this issue takes a different approach. Wang Ping of the Global Times, in his article, “China-LatAm cooperation continues momentum despite changes in regional countries’ politics”, takes note of the ideological changes in Latin America in recent times. Certainly, and with regard to the Chilean presidential elections in which Gabriel Boric emerged as a new face of the Chilean left in La Moneda, Ping reports an ideological trend, a sort of pink tide, which crosses the region and includes countries such as Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and perhaps Brazil if Lula da Silva emerges soon as the winner in the elections of that country.
Be that as it may, since the post-war era, Ping asserts, there has been a historical pattern of a movement, or political ‘pendulum’, between governments of the left and right, marked by a constant political struggle between the two ideological tendencies within the region’s governments. When there is a regional scenario in which right-wing governments predominate, concerns arise about a decline in relations between China and Latin America. And when the opposite picture emerges “Western media [speculate] about fires in the U.S. “backyard” or [claim] that China [is] taking advantage of the opportunity to increase its influence in Latin America.” Precisely what Gehrke’s arguments claim.
However, Ping states that the ideological factor is ultimately not decisive when it comes to Latin American-Chinese relations. Both right-wing and left-wing governments have systematically strengthened their ties with China. Enjoying accelerated economic growth and already established as the world’s second-largest economy, many Latin American countries have been able to benefit from an economy that is still developing.
China has thus become Latin America’s second-largest trading partner and, for some countries in the region, its largest trading partner. Moreover, China is a major source of investment, particularly for countries seeking to strengthen their economies. “For both left-wing and right-wing governments in Latin America,” Ping states, “if they want to consolidate their governing bases, they need to do a good job in economic terms, and if they want to rejuvenate the economy, it is impossible for them to ignore China.” Finally, and regardless of the political color of Latin American governments, cooperation between the two sides in pursuit of development constitutes, in the view of the Chinese, a long-term project.
To sum up, we are witnessing two fundamental positions. The first argues that China is a threat to security in the region. The second states that China seeks only to foster cooperation regardless of the political color of the region’s governments.
A Realistic Perspective on the International Order
Our purpose is not to assess the veracity of the recent historical developments described above. Rather, we seek to explore the nature of the postures detailed in Gehrke’s article as a prime example of how great powers operate in defense of their national interests and what is classically established as their ‘zones of influence’. In other words, the U.S. position is related to the basic nature of great power rivalry and, moreover, to the doctrinal attitudes specifically developed by the U.S. over time.
As an essential principle, every great power seeks at least to consolidate its position in the international system and, of course, to preserve both political and material interests and resources within the spheres in which it already exerts influence historically. This is based on the basic realist principle that the survival of the state is the main goal of every power. Once this has been achieved, the classic balance of power operations between States is then responsible for establishing a minimum order of peace in the international system.
The attitudes detailed in Gehrke’s article encapsulate a long-standing doctrinal attitude. We can briefly cite, for example, the Monroe Doctrine (1823), which sought to repulse European interference in the region’s affairs. Or the Olney Doctrine (1895) which was outlined in a diplomatic note sent to London and which established: 1) The right to repel the presence of any non-hemispheric power in the region; and 2) The right to exercise a hegemonic presence in the region itself.
Likewise, later, George F. Kennan, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in a 1950 letter, published in Foreign Relations, addressed to the Secretary of State, described the importance of strengthening U.S.-Latin American relations as a response to “the Russian challenge to our right to exist as a world power”. The context is the Cold War and Kennan summarizes the fear of a possible ideological domino effect in Latin America that could weaken U.S. national interests.
Significantly, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in Strategic Vision (2012), attributes the decline of the U.S. to a “dynamic shift of the world’s center of gravity from west to east”. Having said this, Gehrke’s writing, and many others of an alarmist nature circulating in the international press, should be taken not as a warning of a literal imminent threat, but as a natural reaction to the emergence of a rival power against another whose preponderance is weakened within the great chessboard that is the international system.
Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva