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China tightens its grip over Latin America

By Elizabeth Delaney
|
May 15, 2023

Commanders in the Pentagon are sounding an alarm over China's growing influence in the areas of Latin America and the Caribbean.

China has set and achieved financial and technological goals that have allowed it to become capable of waging economic warfare on the U.S., even as it becomes increasingly more savvy in its military and political aggression, according to The Heritage Foundation.

China's Efforts to Gain Economic and Political Advantages Over the U.S.

While the U.S. has neglected putting ambassadors in place in the Latin America and Caribbean areas, China has been systemically implementing efforts to gain advantages.

Some of those efforts include monopolizing natural resources, planting influencers sympathetic to its agenda in strategic positions of influence in public and civil society institutions, and buying property allowing it to build dual use facilities such as ports and satellite ground stations.

China has gone to great efforts to increase its influence on Latin America. Though it accounted for less than 2 percent of exports in Latin America in 2000, China has taken steps to rapidly increase its growth, which ushered in a significant increase in demand, according to The Council on Foreign Relations.

Eight years later, trade increased at an average yearly rate of 31 percent, which brought about a value of $180 billion in 2010.

By 2021, the continued increase in trade totaled $450 billion, and economists are anticipating that trade may exceed $700 billion by 2035.

China's Increasing Influence in South America

As a whole, China is presently second only to the United States as South America's top trading partner.

Latin America's primary exports to China are petroleum, soybeans, copper, oil, and other raw materials that are key to enhancing the country's development. The return on the region's exports are mostly higher-value-added manufactured products, which some experts say has been damaging to local industries because the Chinese imports cost less.

As China's influence has increased, America's has diminished. A free trade agreement known as China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been accepted by 21 countries in Latin America, According to Daily Mail.

U.S. Military Leaders Outline Looming Threat to U.S.

The threat of China overtaking the United States as Latin America's primary trade partner has spawned the ire of military leaders, who have become outspoken about their concerns and frustration.

The head of U.S. Southern Command, General Laura Richardson,  told a House Armed Services Committee Hearing in March: "The [People's Republic of China] has the capability and intent to eschew international norms, advance its brand of authoritarianism, and amass power and influence at the expense of these democracies.

"The PRC has expanded its ability to extract resources, establish port, manipulate governments through predatory investment practices, and build potential dual-use space facilities — the most space facilities in any combatant command region."

Richardson has made a point of mentioning in the past that China's President Xi calls leaders in that region "all the time" in an effort to maintain strong relations.

"We need to do the same. And I think we can do better in that respect," Richardson said.

Richardson also mentioned the issue surrounding the lack of U.S. ambassadors in the region.

"When countries see that we don’t have our senior diplomat there, it shows that we’re not serious. That's the message that it sends, and then they don’t really do anything of substance with the United States when we don’t have our senior diplomats there," she said.

One of the deep concerns held by the U.S. Department of Defense, which it has made a point of stating, is how quickly the dual use space facilities could "be turned quickly toward military capabilities."

In addition, China's BRI agreement with the region, which includes ports owned by private Chinese companies along the Panama Canal, has the potential to economically threaten U.S. markets, according to the Daily Mail.