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The strategy is already paying dividends for China. At the UN, Latin American allies have helped ward off resolutions condemning Beijing for its human rights record. A pattern of Beijing seeking Latin American votes at the UN to counterbalance US influence has emerged on a range of issues. The perennial Chinese concern with Taiwan has also been at play. China’s White Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean and Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean, the 2008 and 2016 blueprints for its Latin American strategy, both give primacy to “the one China principle” in relations with Latin America. Astonishingly, only seven out of 33 Latin American countries maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The cutting of ties with Taiwan in return for Chinese largesse is already working in several countries. Seen from a US perspective it is a marker of the changing nature of its influence in the region. For El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama forgoing the relationship with Taiwan is simply seen as a pragmatic economic decision.

China is not simply engaged in shrewd strategic calculation. China’s breakneck economic growth requires primary resources for its domestic market as well as the location of new markets for export. There is both an economic and strategic reciprocity at work. Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela are all key targets for Chinese strategic partnerships partly because of the value of trade but also because of their regional influence.

There is a longer strategic imperative at play in China’s Latin American outlook beyond simple economic relations — the creation of a sphere of influence. The US “Pivot to Asia” under Obama, and intensification of China as principal strategic competitor under Trump, has seen China cleverly mirror US strategy. As the US has increased activity in Asia, so China has reciprocated by increasing its engagement in America’s “backyard”. Tillerson’s recognition of this in 2018 was a belated acceptance that China had been increasing its presence in Latin America, at that point without antagonising the US.

Tillerson was merely acknowledging a new reality in Latin America, a reality that challenges US interests. At the turn of this century China’s involvement in the region coincided with a turn to the left in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Venezuela and Paraguay, among others. The “Pink Tide nations”, as they became known, lacked a uniting ideology but found common ground in strong anti-US sentiment, in particular antipathy to the market-based economic reforms known as the Washington Consensus. American strategy in that sense was counterproductive, pushing much of Latin America towards alternative power bases than US economic institutions. China, Russia and Iran were all economic and military beneficiaries. The US cannot simply push another version of the Washington Consensus in Latin America and expect a different result.

The long shadow of the Monroe Doctrine still looms large. The attractiveness of China as opposed to the stringent conditions of the US is that the apparently less onerous conditions of economic and military cooperation with China play to Latin American grievances over perceived US interference with local sovereignty. China has skilfully exploited these historic grievances by giving primacy to the stated principle of equality and mutual support, which is given pride of place in the state publications. China’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” — mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence — are well-received in much of Latin America.
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