Washington is a better partner than Beijing

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, May 19, 2015


This week’s visit to Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Chile of the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang underlines the growing influence of China in Latin America.  Though the interest of China offers invaluable trade and investment opportunities, Latin American countries should not conclude that China is a good candidate to replace the United States as the most important long-term strategic partner for the region. Washington remains a far more trustworthy strategic partner and convenient ally for the future of Latin America. As marriage partners whose relationship has not always worked out well, U.S. and Latin America have a long history extending for almost 200 years.  The fact that China is now courting Latin America should not lead the countries in the region to dump their long-term partnership with Washington. 


As a result of its rapid economic rise, China is now the leading trade partner with many Latin American countries.  China’s demand for raw materials and other Latin American commodities has grown enormously over the past two decades. Although the slowing down of the economy in China has caused a drop in prices for many commodities—and Latin America has felt the hit—the region has enjoyed several years of progress as a result of the economic rise of China.  Because trade is normally a two-way street, Latin America has also benefitted from cheap imports from China. The expansion of Latin American markets and the growth of the middle class has been achieved to a large extent in the lower costs of purchasing goods that off limits to millions of Latin Americans just a decade ago.  By trading with China, Latin American countries were able to make significant progress in reducing poverty, expanding their middle class and moving forward in their path to development.


Because China has run such a large trade surplus, the Chinese government has also become an important world investor, including in Latin America. Minister Li’s visit is a confirmation of China’s unquestionable interest in becoming more engaged in investing in infrastructure in the region. Given Latin America’s infrastructure deficit, the interest from China in investing in the region is welcome news.


China’s growing influence as a world power leads many to believe that China wants to move beyond being a trade partner and leading foreign investor in Latin America.  Beijing might rightly see Latin America as a potential area of influence that can help China eventually challenge the U.S. as the world’s dominant power.  Since Latin America has been a region of preferred influence by Washington since the mid-19th century, the apparent courting of Latin American governments by Beijing would kill two birds with one stone—as it would induce several countries to switch allegiances from Washington to Beijing in the international arena.


There are good reasons why Latin American countries should be discontent with Washington. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has had more failures than successes in dealing with Latin America.  Both the Bush and Obama administrations have missed valuable opportunities to strengthen ties with Latin America and build a stronger relation of cooperation and mutual trust. True, Latin American countries have not done their part either. But the present situation is such that Latin American countries are the ones being courted, not Washington. The biggest threat to the long-term (difficult) relationship that Latin America has enjoyed with Washington comes from the opportunity some Latin American countries now have to switch allegiances and join China as their strategic partner.  The offer made by China today is attractive—as it includes trade and investment opportunities and, apparently, not meddling with national politics.


Yet, despite its neglect, Washington remains a more attractive long-term partner for Latin America.  Despite its weaknesses, the U.S. is a full-fledged democracy respectful of human rights. China is behind Latin America in terms of democratic rule and respect for human rights.  Latin America can learn more from the U.S. than from China as it seeks to further strengthen and consolidate institutions.


As China woos Latin America with promises of trade and investment, Latin American countries should definitely take advantage of the opportunity and deepen relations with the Asian giant. However, Latin America should not get carried away and believe that China can replace the U.S. as a long-term strategic partner.  Though the short-term benefits might outweigh the costs, leaving the U.S. to move in with China will carry considerable long-term costs for a region characterized by institutional weakness and a weak democratic history. After years of neglect from Washington, several Latin American countries seem to be having a love-affair with China. Even though Washington’s failure to notice feeds the discontent that triggered the affair in the first place, Latin American countries should still ponder the costs of divorcing the U.S. and beginning a new strategic relationship with China. With all the shortcomings, a long-term partnership with the U.S. is still a better deal for Latin America than flying away with the new world power that has come to seduce the region.