China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China Is Expanding Its Foreign Policy Vision. Is Latin America Ready?

A more expansive Chinese foreign policy after 2021 will have political and economic implications for its Western Hemispheric partners.

China Is Expanding Its Foreign Policy Vision. Is Latin America Ready?
Credit: Flickr/ Cancillería del Ecuador

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turns 100 this year. Though predominantly a domestic commemoration, the CCP’s centennial will likely bring policy adjustments that reverberate abroad, particularly in Latin America. After 2021, China is projected to deepen its interest in Latin American commodities while further capitalizing on Latin American’s strategic proximity to the United States. Faced with enhanced Chinese outreach in the coming years, Latin American leaders have the options of active non-alignment, collaboration with, or explicit disinterest in China. Ultimately, Latin American governments’ active non-alignment with China may be both the most developmentally sound policy and the most difficult to implement amidst domestic political constraints.

Founded in 1921, the CCP has ruled modern China since its 1949 victory in the Chinese civil war. In 2020, the party experienced one of the most challenging years of governance to date, including the global spread of COVID-19 and sustained pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Cognizant of how political tensions emerge during commemorative occasions, Chinese authorities have sought to stamp out 2020’s challenges to their image and governance ahead of the 2021 CCP centennial. They have been largely successful: early Chinese whistleblowers on COVID-19 were muzzled, Australia’s calls to investigate the virus’ origins led to a wave of tariffs and import suspensions, and Hong Kong activists have been detained in waves of arrests.

Given that recent challenges to CCP governance have subsided, in 2021 the CCP will likely emphasize a more expansive and interventionist foreign policy. Even if silencing domestic discontent regarding COVID-19 and Hong Kong appeared temporarily successful, dissent can still reemerge. Having a high-visibility foreign policy will help bolster the CCP’s domestic legitimacy during a sensitive year. As a 2015 academic article published by the Political Studies Association notes, “Evidence of an increase in international recognition could bolster claims that the regime has improved the country’s international statu… [Chinese] leadership [could] attempt to appease domestic audiences by gaining ‘face’ for China abroad.”

Beyond addressing domestic legitimacy, an expansive and interventionist foreign policy is currently favored among political elites and reflects a hardline interpretation of CCP interests. Chinese diplomats honed a confrontational public engagement style known as “wolf warrior diplomacy” during the COVID-19 outbreak. This strategy dismisses and discredits foreign criticism of CCP actions as conspiratorial. In recent years, fringe viewpoints have also been welcomed into CCP foreign policy. One such example is Liu Mingfu, a Chinese colonel who has “advocated the need for China to overturn American global dominance to secure peace worldwide.” Wolf warrior diplomacy suggests that China will increasingly intervene to aggressively defend its foreign policy values. Meanwhile, Liu’s views underscore a growing CCP belief that China’s foreign policy interests are innately opposed to and will inherently conflict with U.S. foreign policy interests.

The final ingredient predicting China’s more expansive and interventionist foreign policy in 2021 is a conducive international environment. If prevailing CCP thought places China in direct competition with the United States, the past year has significantly weakened the U.S. ability to compete with China abroad. The United States’ continual withdrawal from international treaties, besieged democratic institutions, sluggish COVID-19 response, and recent widespread social unrest help China extol the Chinese system of government, as well as rapidly forge new partnerships with traditional U.S. allies to assert Chinese preferences.

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As part of its expansive and interventionist strategy, China will likely make Latin America a renewed foreign policy priority in 2021. Latin America’s commodities and geographic location have developmental and strategic value to China. China imports both industrial and foodstuff commodities from Latin America, chiefly soybeans, copper, petroleum, and iron. Although Chinese developmental finance patterns in Latin America have waxed and waned, exports and imports have continued to rise in keeping with this decade’s trends. As commodities fuel China’s growing urban population and infrastructure, China may seek to further dominate the commodity market past 2021 to assure a continued source of domestic growth.

Just as critically, Latin America has symbolic and strategic value to Chinese foreign policy as it seeks to compete with the United States. U.S. policymakers suspect that Chinese investment in Panama will compromise the commercial neutrality of the Panama Canal, on which American trade strongly depends. Others worry that Huawei’s telecommunications expansion will enable Chinese surveillance and espionage of U.S. trade activities. China may likely further invest, buy, and construct to deepen its foothold in the Americas in 2021. Domestic finances permitting, such a strategy enhances China’s own developmental resources while sticking a finger in the eye of the CCP’s self-appointed adversary during a symbolic and commemorative year for the party.

Paradoxically, however, deepening Chinese attention to Latin America may undercut China’s own objectives. China has framed its regional presence to Latin American governments as an alliance of equals, painting both China and Latin American countries as collaborative developing nations. This messaging becomes less plausible if China visibly leverages its presence in Latin America to antagonize the United States. If Latin American countries perceive that China is using the region as a stepping-stone for great power competition, regional governments have less incentive to collaborate with China. In particular, left-wing politicians in Latin America commonly use income from China’s commodity spending to boost domestic social services. Yet leftists with nationalist beliefs may find that using Chinese money is politically untenable if those funds are associated with neocolonialist endeavors.

In the face of projected increased Chinese interest, Latin American governments can choose active non-alignment, collaboration with, or explicit disinterest toward China. Collaboration with China risks alienating U.S. support, while disinterest toward China also limits countries’ development possibilities. Ultimately, Latin American governments’ active non-alignment with China may be both the most developmentally sound policy and the most difficult to implement amidst domestic political constraints. Active non-alignment would require Latin American governments to diversify the sources of their loans, practice collective bargaining, create and adhere to a bipartisan foreign policy on China, and marginalize populist politicians who would threaten that consensus. Each of these factors is a challenge; achieving all of them would be an astounding feat. Nonetheless, such an outcome should not be ruled out. In 2021, China will be pushing the horizons of the possible, and Latin American leaders would be wise to do the same.

Isabel Bernhard (@isabernhd) is an MSc candidate in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford and a graduate of Harvard College.