China’s Push Into ‘America’s Backyard’

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The United States has been quite vocal about its “pivot to Asia,” but as Washington seeks to further its influence in the Asia-Pacific, China has been quietly upping its own importance to Central and Latin America. Now China is making a push to further its engagement with countries in the Western Hemisphere, as evidenced by the announcement of a new dialogue mechanism. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which met in Cuba from January 28 to 29, adopted a statement announcing the establishment of a China-CELAC Forum.

CELAC itself is a fairly new organization, having been established only in 2011, yet it has the potential to be an important political force. Last year, with Cuba as the rotating president, the organization focused on regional cooperation in education, anti-corruption, and natural disaster relief. CELAC also declared Latin America a “peace zone,” with countries agreeing to solve their differences peacefully, through dialogue. Cuban President Raul Castro, who headed this year’s CELAC summit in Havana, called CELAC “the legitimate representative of the interests of Latin America and the Caribbean.”

The China-CELAC Forum, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei, is designed to provide “an important platform for the growth of bilateral comprehensive and cooperative partnership featuring equality, mutual benefit and common development.” Hong added that the establishment of this forum “fully speaks to the shared wish of Latin American and Caribbean states to enhance their overall cooperation with China.” The first meeting is expected to take place later in 2014.

China’s outreach to CELAC is only one part of a growing relationship with the Western hemisphere. China has become the second largest trading partner for Latin America–growth driven in part by China’s demand for natural resources. However, as in the case of Africa, China’s interests in the region are more complex than a simple need for raw materials. Central and Latin American countries are also attractive as markets for Chinese goods, as well as offering the potential for cooperation on the infrastructure projects Chinese construction companies so often undertake around the globe. In 2012, China’s bilateral trade with Latin America as a region increased over 8 percent to $261 billion.

On the political level, since 2001, China has signed strategic partnership agreements with five countries in the region: Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru.  As a sign of the region’s importance, Xi Jinping visited Central America in June of last year, stopping in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago.  Several regional leaders have also made the trek to Beijing, including Equador’s Vice President Jorge Glas Espinel, Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales Ayma, and Brazilian Vice President Michel Temer.

Adding an extra level of enticement for China, the majority of countries that still recognize Taiwan are located in Central America and the Caribbean. Though there’s currently somewhat of an unofficial truce on this issue between Taipei and Beijing, long term Beijing may seek to woo these 11 countries away from Taiwan.

Meanwhile, China’s engagement also helps highlight some regional ambivalence towards the United States. CELAC itself was conceived of as an alternative to the Washington-led Organization of American States. CELAC member states include every country in the Western hemisphere expect Canada and the United States, rather pointed omissions. The fact that the most recent CELAC summit was held in Havana only served to underscore a lack of coherent U.S. policy in the region. The U.S. still has in place an embargo on Cuba, which has outlived both logic and usefulness — something Raul Castro, in his speech to the CELAC summit, was not shy about pointing out.

Underlining the sentiments of some in CELAC, Castro warned that CELAC must be on guard against attempts by the U.S. to leverage the region for its own benefit. “The so-called centers of power do not resign themselves to having lost control over this rich region, nor will they ever renounce attempts to change the course of history in our countries in order to recover the influence they have lost,” he said. Partnering with China seems to be CELAC’s way of hedging against U.S. dominance in the region — just as some states in the Asia-Pacific are edging closer to the U.S. in a bid against growing Chinese power.

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