Memo to Washington ERIC FARNSWORTH
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi poses with Fidel
Castro on an official visit to Cuba in August 2010.
As China faces its own near-term leadership transition, efforts to purchase domestic political stability
with foreign trade and investment are likely to intensify.
At the same time, Latin American nations that have
been the primary trade and investment partners with
China have also gained handsomely, at least in the short
term, in the sectors that produce primary goods. Longer term questions abound regarding the balance and
terms of trade, the nature of the investments that China
is making, and the values that are being promoted or undermined by such investments.
2 Additionally, nations
that are not supplying significant amounts of commodities to China, including Mexico and Central America,
view China more as an aggressive competitor than as an
economic partner. The costs and benefits of trade with
China are unequally distributed across the Americas.
SHOULD THE UNITED STATES REACT? CAN IT?
To the extent that simple commercial exchange dominates the China story in the Americas, the implications for the United States are minimal. A rational and appropriate response would simply be to promote a level, transparent playing field
for U.S. business and investors to compete effectively
with a new, well-financed competitor.
This is exactly the way Chinese leaders have presented
their efforts: as benign economic actions that offer little challenge to U.S. interests. Indeed, the stock of U.S.
investment in the region continues to dwarf Chinese
investment, and regional trade with the United States
continues to surpass trade with China by a factor of al-
Americas Quarterly WINTER 2012
most four to one. At this point, neither Chinese pronouncements nor concrete actions establish a reason to
believe that China has strategic designs on Latin America from a military or security perspective, either to project power into the region or to challenge U.S. military
predominance from a hemispheric platform.
Nonetheless, China’s entrance into the Americas does
have strategic implications for the U.S., and from this
perspective Washington has been overly complacent.
In part, this is because most Latin America specialists
in the policy community are not well versed in international relations theory or practice, and therefore do
not focus on geostrategic issues (Sabatini, March–April
2012, Foreign Affairs). They are development specialists,
historians, human rights advocates, sociologists, Spanish (though generally not Portuguese) linguists, community activists, and the like. Some are uncomfortable
with the idea that the U.S. has legitimate national interests to pursue or values to promote, viewing the region through a historical filter that highlights the U.S.
as the primary threat to the region rather than as a critical if imperfect driver of democratic governance and
economic growth and opportunity.
As a result, there may be a tendency to be suspicious
of actions that promote U. S. economic and national security interests, including trade and investment expansion, counternarcotics programs, security assistance, and
even democracy promotion in relation to Cuba and elsewhere. It is within this intellectual construct that they
place the growing influence of extra-regional actors and
also rising regional actors such as Brazil.
This overwhelming bias in the policy and academic
communities—a bias that does not generally inform
U. S. policy in other regions—continues to put U. S. policy in the region at a disadvantage. It focuses on things
we cannot fully change while neglecting initiatives that
would accrue to our benefit.
For example, the foundation of President Barack
Obama’s policy in the Americas has consisted essentially
of support for social inclusion and microeconomic development, institutional strengthening, clean energy development, and the promotion of equal partnership in
3 These are worthy goals. But they
cannot be the sole basis for an effective foreign policy,
if for no other reason than these goals require domestic
actions to achieve and the tools that the U.S. has to affect
others’ domestic decisions are limited. That is increasingly true in a period of limited and shrinking resources.
As well, such an approach does not take into account