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Trump is making China angry. Could China undermine the U.S. in Latin America?

- December 3, 2016

Many experts suggest that the rhetoric and politics of President-elect Donald Trump provide an opportunity for China to make inroads into Latin America. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently promoted a Chinese-led trading bloc as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership in a meeting of 21 Pacific Rim leaders that took place in Peru.

Just as in the South China Sea, where China may be getting the Philippines and Malaysia to turn toward it, we may be seeing a pivot to the Americas. This may be of greater relevance in the wake of Trump’s ham-handed comments about Taiwan, which may make China more interested in influencing politics in the United States’ own back yard. If this prospect concerns or interests you, here are the five things you need to know about China’s new role in Latin America.

First of all, it’s actually not so new

Beijing has been purposefully filling the void the United States left in Latin America for a long time. In a recent article published in Latin American Politics and Society, my colleagues and I examined the pattern of Chinese economic activity in Latin America between 2003 and 2014. We found that while China’s commodity imports were driven by standard market considerations, other kinds of economic activity — the behavior of China’s state-owned enterprises, bank loans and manufactured exports — consistently targeted Latin American countries where the United States was less influential. These are the sectors most likely to be heavily influenced by Beijing’s politicians. Therefore, people shouldn’t overreact, and they shouldn’t misinterpret China’s recent interest in the region as a suggestion that the state is turning toward the offensive.

Chinese political gains will be limited

It may be that China will make gains on foreign policy issues it cares about. Some recent research suggests that as developing countries become more dependent on Chinese trade, they are more likely to vote with Beijing in multilateral organizations on human rights and other issues. Others find that trade dependence affects a country’s position regarding whether China should be treated as a market economy, as well as its stance on sensitive issues such as the recognition of Taiwan.

Since 11 of the 21 states that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan are in Latin America, this could have consequences. However, this same record of distant diplomatic relations between China and Latin American countries suggests China will have a tougher time getting Latin American states to treat it as a real political leader or provide it with relevant strategic concessions.

China’s influence is further limited by its economic slowdown

China’s ability to forge closer bonds with Latin American countries via bilateral and multilateral treaties will be hampered by its stagnant trade relationship. Trade between China and Latin America grew from roughly $20 billion to $290 billion in the 10 years from 2003 to 2013. When Donald Trump was launching his presidential campaign, China was already the second-largest export market and source of investment and loans for the region. But Latin American commodity exports to China shrank slightly in 2014, and imports from China declined slightly the following year. This recent history of decreasing trade suggests China won’t make diplomatic gains unless it is prepared to make extraordinary new financial commitments to the region.

Washington’s difficulties don’t necessarily lead to Beijing’s opportunity

Trump’s victory may weaken U.S. relations with Latin America, but China may not necessarily benefit from it. Latin Americans have a highly favorable view of China, but they are more interested in economic opportunity than in deeper cultural or political relations.

Over the past decade, Beijing set up Confucius Institutes across the region in an effort to persuade Latin Americans of the virtues of China’s political system (or at least to reassure them that it is innocuous). However, these public-relations initiatives have had no significant consequences for views of the Middle Kingdom. If China’s reputation is based on its economic attractiveness, weakening trade and the recent surge in capital outflows may suggest that its prestige is about to take a few dents. In short, when the U.S. loses legitimacy, China doesn’t necessarily gain it.

At least some politics is local

Finally, Latin America’s international realignment depends on domestic politics. Both left-wing and right-wing opposition parties in specific countries would like to take advantage of Trump’s victory. How this will affect domestic postures toward America’s competitors is highly uncertain, but attitudes are as likely to be influenced by parochial power struggles and challengers on both the left and right as by geopolitics.

Luis L. Schenoni is a PhD student in political science at the University of Notre Dame.

Note: Updated Sept. 25, 2023.