China’s inroads into Latin America has been growing over the past decade. Beijing’s intent was clearly on display when then president-in-waiting Xi Jinping arrived in Mexico in 2009 and delivered a stinging criticism of the United States on the doorsteps of America’s backyard. In the speech, the recently crowned ‘president for life’ harshly chastised Washington, stating: “There are some well fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs. … China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you.” Then a relatively-unknown figure to many observers, Xi’s statement could be seen as the opening salvo in China’s assertive foreign policy, which now aptly characterizes the Xi administration that include a more aggressive approach towards territorial disputes in China’s periphery in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and over Taiwan.
China’s current approach to Latin America reflects the evolution of a policy that was officially launched around the same time as the speech in 2008 with the release of the PRC’s first policy white paper on Latin America and the Caribbean. Indeed, the release of that White Paper was heralded in the Chinese state media at the time as marking a “new chapter” in Sino-Latin American and Caribbean relations and identified political; economic; cultural/social; and security/judicial cooperation as the four major cornerstones of China’s efforts to bolster relations with Latin America. There is another reason why the region is of importance for Beijing: Taiwan. Clearly stated as one of the four “goals” of China’s new policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean:
The one China principle is the political basis for the establishment and development of relations between China and Latin American and Caribbean countries and regional organizations. The overwhelming majority of countries in the region are committed to the one China policy and the position of supporting China’s reunification and not having official ties or contacts with Taiwan. The Chinese Government appreciates such a stance. China is ready to establish and develop state-to-state relations with all Latin American and Caribbean countries based on the one China principle [emphasis added].
In retrospect, this perhaps should have been a warning to Taipei that, despite the “diplomatic truce” between China and Taiwan, Beijing was going to continue to cultivate its ties with Taiwan’s diplomatic partners in the region. At the time, eleven of the 23 countries that recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan) were in Latin America and the Caribbean. While no countries in the region established official ties with the PRC during the period between 2008 and 2016, it was not for the lack of countries wanting to switch. As leaked diplomatic cables indicate, there were a number of countries in the region that tried but were basically told by Beijing to wait. Revelation of PRC’s diplomatic subterfuge in Latin America, despite the appearance of calm in cross-Strait ties, is a sharp rebuke for Taiwan’s diplomatic strategy at the time, which ultimately depended on Beijing’s assent on the qualitative state of cross-Strait relations.
After Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) were swept into office and gained control of the Legislative Yuan in January 2016, respectively, all appearances of the “diplomatic truce” were off the table. In addition to three other countries, Panama switched in June 2017 and the Dominican Republic followed suit a year later. Now, ten of Taiwan’s 18 remaining diplomatic allies are in Latin America and the Caribbean. As Senator Marco Rubio noted on the Senate Floor:
They [China] have … been successful in pressuring certain nations to cut their diplomatic ties with Taiwan and instead create new ones with Beijing. … The latest, by the way, is the Dominican Republic, not far from our coast, where in exchange for billions of dollars of assurances, they made that change … these billions of dollars sound like a really good deal until you realize they bring their own workers from China and it is all a one-way street. … China must not be allowed to continue to interfere any further in Taiwan’s relations or standing with the rest of the world.
So what does China’s expanding diplomatic footprint in Latin America mean not only for Taiwan but the United States? Beijing’s oft-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—which Xi proposed in 2013—aims to promote expanding links between Asia, Africa and Europe, with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment. Latin America may also be added into the line-up. In January 2018, Beijing suggested that it saw a role for Latin America in BRI at a meeting with 33 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. At that meeting, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) touted expanding projects to improve connectivity between land and sea, and jointly building “logistic, electricity and information pathways.”
On June 8, the Global Taiwan Institute and the International Assessment and Strategy Center co-hosted a public seminar on Capitol Hill to address the current issues in China’s relations with Latin America and their implications for Taiwan and the United States. At the event, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen unambiguously asserted:
… Beijing is pouring money into Latin America, corruptly financing projects, securing influence, and trying to reduce American power. And the fact that Beijing has an opportunity to isolate another of its adversaries, Taiwan, while undermining US influence, makes Latin America an even more attractive place for its attention. China seeks to create a world order more favorable to its authoritarian style – one where human rights and freedom aren’t respected, where dictatorships have free reign to enrich their regimes, and where Beijing can project its military and economic power against the United States and its democratic allies. Fighting back against this malign influence requires a concerted effort on the part of like-minded nations – it can’t be the United States going it alone. We need all our democratic allies to step up and band together because each time we lose an ally we become weaker in the face of China’s aggression.
The main point: China’s current approach to Latin America reflects the evolution of a policy launched in 2008 with the release of the PRC’s first policy white paper on Latin America and the Caribbean. While the isolation of Taiwan remains an important feature in this strategy, it is one objective in a broader ploy aimed at challenging the United States and its democratic allies.