China in Latin America: The Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act

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China in Latin America: The Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act

Insights from R. Evan Ellis.

China in Latin America: The Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act
Credit: Flickr/Cancillería del Ecuador

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. R. Evan Ellis, a Latin America research professor with the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College who has published over 330 works on the region, including four books, is the 310th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the impetus behind the U.S. Congress’ bipartisan proposed legislation, the Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act (WHSSA).

Latin America and the Caribbean, to which the United States is intimately linked by ties of geography, commerce, and family, currently faces an unprecedented confluence of challenges potentially affecting our security and prosperity, as well as those of our neighbors. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated endemic problems in the region, profoundly affected the livelihoods of economically vulnerable populations, increasing inequality and insecurity, and fueling expanded migration to the U.S.

Meanwhile, citizen frustration with the performance of past governments across the region has fueled an unprecedented shift to the left to the region, including the consolidation of power by populist authoritarian governments such as those in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba, and anti-democratic elements and potential crises leading left-oriented governments in potentially worrisome directions in Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras, and Chile.  These governments present the risk of decreased cooperation with the U.S. on critical issues such as drugs, transnational organized crime, and migration, while creating opportunities for the expanded presence in the region of U.S. rivals, including the PRC, Russia, and Iran.

While the Biden administration has policy documents and experienced professionals who know diplomacy and the region, the bill reflects the need for a more public debate about how best to confront these challenges, including not only the response to the expanded presence of extra-hemispheric actors, but also the question of resources, areas of focus, and best combination of interagency efforts to address the “root causes” of the region’s challenges. These include the tradeoffs that are sometimes necessary between advocating for social justice versus not undercutting imperfect but strategically important partners, or how to engage productively with leftist regimes, while not being manipulated and remaining sensitive to anti-democratic currents within them.

In what ways does this bill spotlight the geostrategic significance of Latin America?

The bill highlights how the deterioration of democratic governance and security in Latin America profoundly affects the U.S., not only through our investments in and supply chains involving the region, but also through migration flows fueling the current border crisis; drugs, which killed over 100,000 U.S. residents last year; transnational organized crime; and options for extra-hemispheric actors such as Russia to present direct threats through cooperative anti-U.S. actors such as Cuba and Venezuela, as well as opportunistic populist regimes such as Argentina.

Analyze how Beijing is expanding China’s strategic positioning across Latin America and the Caribbean.    

State-owned enterprises, backed by the facilitating efforts of the PRC government, have been the principal vehicle for China’s advance in Latin America (as elsewhere) with $160 billion in investments in the region since 2005, and particularly in the last decade, although this has been temporarily slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It also includes $314 billion in PRC trade with the region, and $136 billion in loans from its policy banks. Key areas of focus have included secure access to commodities and foodstuffs for the Chinese people, through investments in sectors such as oil, mining (including strategic minerals like lithium), agro-logistics, forestry, and fishing. Chinese companies have also focused on connectivity and secure access to strategic markets and technologies, in sectors like electricity generation and transmission, biotechnology transportation logistics telecommunications, smart cities and artificial intelligence, and e-commerce.

They have used bilateral engagement, including free trade agreements and the establishment of “strategic partnerships” with ministerial-level committees to facilitate progress in key areas. They have also used multilateral engagements, including co-financing funds with the Interamerican Development Bank, collaborative projects with the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the transregional BRICS forum, subregional forums such as the Caribbean Development Bank, and working through the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which excludes the U.S. and Canada, for coordinating and advancing their engagement plans for the region as a whole.

The PRC also uses “people-to-people” diplomacy, including 39 Confucius Institutes in the region, Hanban scholarships to recruit the best and brightest of the region’s China-facing scholars, and trips to the PRC for Latin American academics, analysts, journalists, and politicians through the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, in addition to support for Latin American media. The PRC also sells or donates a modest amount of armaments to Latin American police forces and militaries (especially populist governments), hosts Latin American military personnel in its military training and education institutions, and periodically sends its warships and military delegations to the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the region even more susceptible to PRC advances through its expanded importance as a provider of vaccines and medical support, a purchaser of its commodities, and a source of loans and investments for major projects such as the new port of Chancay and the Las Bambas mine in Peru, the Maya train in Mexico, and the new $8 billion Hualong-1 reactor, to be built in Argentina. PRC-based companies are also poised to expand their presence in the region in coming years through mergers and acquisitions, as Western companies shore up their post-pandemic positions by selling off assets in weakly performing markets like Latin America.

The ongoing changes in diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC also open up avenues for rapid PRC advances, facilitated by non-transparent MOUs opening up the local market. Nicaragua’s December 2021 flip is likely to be followed by Honduras within the year, with a number of others such as Haiti, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent’s and the Grenadines also vulnerable. In addition, the new wave of populist and other leftist governments in need of Chinese funding, and politically receptive to state-to-state deals with the PRC, will also increase PRC opportunities in coming years.

If approved, how would the bill be implemented?  

The key element is the requirement for a new strategy document toward the Western Hemisphere, with an associated specification of additional resources needed. Congress has obliged the State Department to produce a number of strategy documents in the past, and the bill’s language is sufficiently general to cover both Republican and Democrat-oriented issues, so in practical terms, the most important part of the bill is likely to be the public debate on the strategic importance of the region and associated priorities it facilitates, and the use of the resulting document as a lever after, as is expected, the Republicans retake control of one or both houses of Congress following the November midterm elections.

Assess the pros and cons of WHSSA and the likelihood of its legislative passage.

Given Democrat control of Congress, passage is unlikely, but still possible if Democrats committed to increased focus on the hemisphere join Republicans, and the bill is not cast as an attack on administration policy toward the region to date.