While the West sees the Ukraine War as a struggle for human freedom and international principles, the conflict continues to be viewed with apathy by Latin America. Latin America’s response to the conflict is rooted in a historical diplomatic tradition, of non-alignment and non-interference. It’s also a result of residual animosity towards the West over historical support for oppressive dictatorships by the U.S. and Europe’s colonial past, but also a natural tendency for states within a region dominated by a hegemon to seek alternatives. For some countries, such as Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, their support for Russia is historically rooted and based on the close relations with Russia and overt hostility towards the U.S. However, for the rest of the region, their apathy towards the conflict is more rooted in their fear of upending diplomatic tradition and alienating China as a potential partner. They see little compelling interest in supporting Ukraine and only potential risks.
This can be seen in their policy and approach to the conflict. Most of Latin America voted to condemn the Russian invasion, but none of those countries have provided aid, participated in the sanctions implemented by the EU and the United States, or provided military assistance to Ukraine. While this issue has dominated relations between the West and Latin America for the past year, no Latin American country has changed its stance.
Why is China viewed with such importance as a partner by most Latin American countries? China has benefitted from the dynamic of mutual suspicion between the West and Latin America to position itself as a purveyor of economic aid and investment, without political baggage. The Belt and Road Initiative now has investments in 21 Latin American countries, constructing infrastructure and financing development projects in a very direct, visible manner. Even more important to Latin America’s economy is China’s position as their largest trade partner, China purchases 26% of the region’s exports; Latin America’s rare earth minerals and raw resources are of great importance to China’s manufacturing, construction, and technology sectors.
Chinese investment and trade provide a welcome alternative for Latin American leaders. Most Latin American economies remain stagnant and feel their needs and desires from the international system are ignored and marginalized. When they do receive attention or engagement, it is focused on values and trade. These are laudable and important goals but as Larry Summers once described in a telling anecdote, “Somebody from a developing country said to me, ‘What we get from China is an airport. What we get from the United States is a lecture.’ ‘ For example, Huawei is building 5G telecommunication infrastructure across the region, something that the U.S. has expressed significant anxieties over. Yet, the U.S. is not providing alternatives that are on par with what China is currently offering as a partner. This is a prevalent and increasingly entrenched sentiment in the region that will require prioritization and significant resources to upend.
While China has developed increasing influence in Latin America, it has yet to overtly exert pressure for countries in Latin America to align with them on geopolitical issues with one exception. Several countries in the region have revoked recognition of Taiwan in favor of the PRC, and the Central American Council expelled Taiwan as an observer. Consequently, as China enjoys an advantageous position, it can continue to cast itself as committed to the development of Latin America, while not yet attempting to extract policy concessions. Neither is China attempting to imprint its system of governance or its ideology onto its partners. This allows it to continue engaging with and making inroads with countries throughout the region, regardless of their ideological leanings or authoritarian versus democratic nature.
However, there is a precedent that China will not enjoy such a privileged position when it attempts to utilize its soft power influence for significant geopolitical gain. Wolf Warrior Diplomacy was an attempt by China to flex its geopolitical muscle. We can already see that this strategy resulted in significant diplomatic blowback on China. Populations in Latin America and Asia have become more skeptical about China’s intentions toward the region in the past five years. However, relying on continued blunders by China or hoping for a Chinese economic plateau should not be our strategy for the region. While Latin American countries may cool on China as a partner, this is not guaranteed, and it will not mean that they will intrinsically see the U.S. as their most privileged partner once again.
This is not to say that China now is in a dominant position in Latin America. The vast majority of countries have chosen to completely stay out of the Russo-Ukraine Conflict, not take Russia’s side. This should inform us of what their future approach to geo-political competition will be. They will seek to stay non-aligned and extract concessions from both sides. This is a tradition that they have followed since independence, and with China’s emergence as a serious alternative, it has returned once again. We can call it fence-sitting or cowardly, but that will not change the fact that the United States can no longer simply dictate policy for the hemisphere.
If the U.S. wants to re-engage and reassert its position in Latin America, it needs to go beyond platitudes and lectures. For the past six years, we have publicly discussed, analyzed, and expressed anxiety over China’s growing influence in the region. Yet, the U.S. has not substantively attempted to compete with China in Latin America. Trump treated much of the region with hostility, and the Biden administration has not prioritized it. Relying purely on the commonality of values and U.S. Foreign Direct Investment into Latin America is not a sufficient strategy if the U.S. wants to entice the region to align with it on key geopolitical issues. The United States needs an integrated regional strategy for Latin America that uses our moralist authority and trade relationship as a foundation but goes beyond it to also provide strong material incentives.