When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson toured Latin America in mid-February, his statements about China’s increasing influence on Latin America made international headlines.
Chinese and Russian state-run media were quick to jump down Tillerson’s throat, while several think-pieces spewed from US-based media outlets.
The “US disregarded Latin America, so it looked to China for partners,” the Russian government-backed media outlet RT claimed, and “Tillerson Exposes US Paranoia by Calling China ‘Imperialist Power,’” an editorial in the China Daily (the Chinese government counterpart) asserted.
In the US, CNN Money wrote on how “China sees an opening as Trump loses confidence of Latin America,” and a Washington Post article posed the question, “China is investing seriously in Latin America. Should you worry?”
While op-eds from international media aim to stoke and/or mitigate Cold War era fears, we’ve gathered the takes, hot and cold, from far and wide, so you can know what people on all sides of the political spectrum (and the world) are saying.
So, what were Tillerson’s original comments?
“Today, China is gaining a foothold in Latin America,” Tillerson said at the University of Texas, on his way to Mexico, the first stop on his Latin American tour. “It is using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit. The question is: At what price?”
Argentina is one of those countries China is focusing on. China is now the top trading partner of Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Brazil. Tillerson worries that this expanding business partnership indicates China’s replacement of the US as a hegemon in the Western hemisphere.
“Latin America doesn’t need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people,” Tillerson said. “China’s offers always come at a price – usually in the form of state-led investments, carried out by imported Chinese labor, onerous loans, and unsustainable debt. The China model extracts precious resources to feed its own economy, often with disregard for the laws of the land or human rights.”
While the Secretary of State acknowledged that China’s increasing trade with the region has brought some economic benefits, he warned of harm towards domestic manufacturing sectors, higher unemployment, and lower wages as other results of partnership with China.
Shortly after Tillerson’s incendiary remarks, China’s foreign ministry accused the US of “disrespect” in an official statement.
“What the United States said is entirely against the truth and displayed disrespect to the vast number of Latin American countries,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. “Cooperation between China and Latin American countries is based on equality, reciprocity, openness and inclusiveness. China is a major international buyer of Latin American bulk commodities, and imports more and more agricultural and high value-added products from the region.”
Argentina is one of those countries that benefits from agricultural trade with China. Just last month, the two countries made a “historic” trade deal that enables the export of more Argentine meat to China.
And in a final snub to the Trump administration, China’s statement suggested that “relevant countries abandon outdated concepts of zero-sum games and look at the development of China-Latin America relations in an open and inclusive manner.” (If you need an explanation of that passive aggressive comment, relevant countries = the US.)
In a less vague statement, the aforementioned editorial in the China Daily skewered the Trump administration for its ideology from a “bygone era.”
“While the Cold War paradigm no longer applies,” the op-ed reads, “there is every sign that the Trump White House believes it does, even though the rest of the world has moved on and is living in 2018.”
In both the China Daily editorial and the official statement, China emphatically characterizes the current US administration as old-fashioned and stuck in the past, while China embraces globalization.
The editorial further stated, “After all, that part of the Western Hemisphere is what it [the US] still regards as its ‘backyard.’”
What Latin Americans are saying
Former Argentine ambassador to the US Cecilia Nahon told China Global Television Network (CGTN), “We, as Latin Americans, aren’t trying to be the backyard of anybody.”
Nahon said she thinks that the US is “neglecting the history of US involvement in the region,” and said that diversifying sources of trade, funding, and investment can only be beneficial for the region. She said this diversification should happen not only with China, but in the form of various multilateral agreements.
While Nahon was the Argentine ambassador to the US under the former Kirchner administration, Horacio Reyser, Argentina’s current secretary of international economic relations under President Mauricio Macri, also emphasized the importance of diversification.
“We see in this moment there is an increase of interest (in China and Russia) and we encourage that because to us, it appears very positive,” Reyser told Reuters. “It doesn’t generate conflict. There can be an opportunity to grow business with Russia, and at the same time improve trade with China, while receiving investments from both countries. That does not imply concentration, but rather the opposite: We are searching for diversification.”
In addition to economic reasons, some analysts are pointing to politics to explain why Latin America could be shifting away from the US. US President Donald Trump’s approval ratings in the region are historically low. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 16 percent of Latin Americans approve of the Trump administration. Approval ratings of US leadership in every country in Latin America have gone down since Trump took office from former President Barack Obama.
In Argentina, only 11 percent of citizens approve of Trump, compared to 55 percent who approved of Obama. Further, only 15 percent of Argentines believe Trump will strengthen bilateral relations, compared to 43 percent who thought Obama would. The poll analysis points to Trump’s “America First” policies (and by America, of course, he means US) as a main reason for this lack of international confidence.
“I find it hard to understand why there are so many Latin American governments that are so excited about meeting up with the Trump administration and celebrating their relationship with the US at this particular moment,” Argentine diplomat Nahon told CGTN, citing as well the administration’s rhetorical attacks on Mexico, Venezuela, and El Salvador.
However, some analysts say it’s not all about Trump, and a shift away from the US has been a long time coming.
Some international analysts interpret what Tillerson called China’s “disregard” as a good thing. “The Chinese government doesn’t meddle in foreign affairs,” former Venezuelan diplomat Temir Porras told CGTN. “It doesn’t make an opinion of each and every political move that happens in Latin American countries.”
Porras’s comment references decades of US interference with Latin American governments. What the US government refers to as democracy-building, others might label as cultural imperialism.
Reactions in the US
As most of you (hopefully) know, not everyone in the US is ideologically aligned with the Trump administration.
In his speech at the University of Texas, Tillerson said the Monroe Doctrine “is as relevant today as it was the day it was written.”
(For a quick history brush-up: the Monroe Doctrine was US foreign policy in the 19th century. It opposed European colonialism in the Western hemisphere, but in turn, asserted US hegemony in Latin America. Tillerson’s comment about it ended up being very controversial.)
In an op-ed for the New York Times, executive director for the think tank and advocacy group Global Americans Christopher Sabatini wrote, “In a region that has suffered countless United States interventions in the name of the Monroe Doctrine, invoking it as a legitimate guide for American foreign policy is only slightly better than advocating the ‘white man’s burden’” (essentially, the task, believed by white colonizers to be incumbent upon them, of imposing Western civilization on the black inhabitants of European colonies. TL, DR: Not a good thing to advocate).
However, Hal Brands, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments wrote in Bloomberg that the international criticism of harkening back to the Monroe Doctrine was “predictable,” but not necessarily wrong.
“Although expressing these ideas today may be impolitic, they remain quite relevant,” Brands wrote. “Were China or Russia to establish a major military or geopolitical presence in Latin America, the US would surely find its security posture compromised: Washington would have to devote far more resources and attention to protecting its southern flank and less to projecting power overseas.”
Brands insisted that US dominance in the Western hemisphere has been undoubtedly beneficial for the US, and generally positive for Latin America, too (a view he acknowledges is “controversial.”)
Regardless of what the think-pieces say, China’s rise in Latin America is indicative of the problem of Trump’s foreign policy. It’s a tough balancing act for the Trump administration to balance “America First” with American hegemony.
How this will impact Argentina
In his speech at the University of Texas, Tillerson called out Argentina specifically as a model of economic growth for Latin America.
Argentina, under President Macri’s leadership, has made monumental strides in delivering reforms to open the Argentine economy and pursue growth for all Argentinians. Its historically high inflation rate is finally decreasing. GDP is going up, spurred on by investment and soaring consumer confidence.
And one week after the U.S. Congress passed landmark tax reform policy, Argentina’s legislature took action to overhaul their tax system as well. All of these efforts are making the second-largest economy in South America ripe for more investment and growth. We hope more countries take a similar path – to help the entire hemisphere grow in prosperity.
As The Trump administration antagonizes much of Latin America, Secretary of State Tillerson raved about President Macri in his speech. This flattery might indicate that the US intends to focus more on its bilateral trade relationship with Argentina now that China has taken the position as its number one trade partner, so that could mean good news for the country – at least in theory.