Opinion: What the US election means for China-Latin American relations

Latin America can’t rely on the US or China alone to kick-start regional growth and must diversify its international partners


Joe Biden and Donald Trump in the US presidential debate

The shadow of the US election looms over China's role in retarting growth in Latin America after Covid-19 (image: Alamy)

The US election on November 3 will have major implications for China-Latin America relations over the next four years. 

If Donald Trump is re-elected, it is likely that the US will step up pressure on Latin America to limit – if not eliminate – relations with China. A heavy-handed approach can be expected. If former vice-president Joe Biden is elected, his government would likely pursue a more collaborative regional approach that might even include some cooperative ventures with China. 

China-Latin America relations on the US’ watch

The US has been a looming presence ever since China and Latin America began to engage in significant relations at the dawn of the 21st century. In a 2008 book chapter, I introduced the concept of a “US-China-Latin America triangle,” which embodies the close connections among the three. 

While some right-wing politicians were concerned from the beginning about China’s intentions toward the region, many officials in the Bush and Obama administrations saw the new links more benignly, as a way to stimulate growth in the region that would benefit all parties. 

For its part, China was always aware that it was playing in the US sphere of influence and so openly restricted itself to economic ties. When, for example, Hugo Chavez tried to pull China into his anti-US campaign, China showed no interest in participating, limiting its attention to Venezuela’s vast oil reserves.

The nature of these triangular links changed after Trump’s election in 2016, as relations between the US and China soured. On the US side, anti-China rhetoric expanded into a trade war and then a broader geopolitical struggle over international power. 

If Trump is re-elected, an even more aggressive policy toward Latin America can be expected... it would be harder for Latin America to avoid taking sides

China responded, both defensively, with tit-for-tat tariffs, and offensively; courting developing countries with large investments in infrastructure through its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and medical assistance in the fight against Covid-19. It also began taking a more aggressive diplomatic stance in the form of so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”. In the process, pressure mounted on other countries – in Europe and Asia as well as Latin America – to take sides in the US-China conflicts. 

In the case of Latin America, Trump government actions began to resemble those of the last century: Venezuela was threatened with troops if it didn’t change governments; Mexico was threatened with prohibitive tariffs if it didn’t prevent illegal immigrants from entering the US; countries that switched recognition from Taiwan to mainland China were threatened with an aid cut-off; and various governments were warned not to allow Chinese tech companies to provide equipment for advanced internet (5G) services. 

A particularly aggressive move was to put forward a hardline US official to be president of the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), defying the time-honored tradition of that position being held by a Latin American. Many experts believe the aim is to use IDB money to compete with China’s BRI investments.

Against this backdrop, it is not immediately clear how different a second Trump administration versus a new Biden government would be for China-Latin America ties, since both of the major political parties in the US share a strong anti-China sentiment. Indeed, this is one of the few points of agreement between Democrats and Republicans today. 

Taking sides

An important factor will be how the campaign plays out in its waning days – to what extent relations with China become a central focus and if Biden get pushed into taking strong anti-China positions. Fortunately, thus far, China has been overshadowed by other topics in electoral discourse.

If Trump is re-elected, an even more aggressive policy toward Latin America can be expected. There would likely be more of an “us against them” approach, especially with respect to high tech but also more generally, and it would be harder for Latin America to avoid taking sides. 

A Biden administration would likely focus less attention on Latin America due to other priorities, especially increasing investment within the US itself and mending relations with European and Asian allies

If Latin American countries back down and distance themselves from China, it would mean less money to get regional economies growing again, making them less attractive to other investors and resulting in a vicious circle of low growth. 

If Latin Americans refuse US demands, there are various weapons the US could use; tariffs are Trump’s favourite, but covert military and intelligence activities cannot be ruled out. Special targets would continue to be Venezuela, Mexico, and Central America, but the rest of the region would also be pulled in.

A Biden administration would likely focus less attention on Latin America due to other priorities, especially increasing investment within the US itself and mending relations with European and Asian allies. This would provide more space for Latin Americans to make autonomous policy decisions, and more attention would be directed to regional cooperation. 

In this case, Latin America could continue to do business with both the US and China as well as third countries. Some pressure would probably be exerted, especially with respect to 5G, but no steps would be taken toward a general ban on relations with China. There might even be some symbolic initiatives involving US-China-Latin America joint projects. Better relations would certainly be established with Mexico and Central America, and a regional solution would likely be sought for Venezuela.

The way forward

How should Latin America react in the face of these two scenarios? Whatever the electoral outcome, the region must do its utmost to diversify its international relations. Latin America is in a very difficult political and economic situation in 2020: A pandemic that continues to spread; an economic crisis that threatens to eliminate many of the social gains of the past two decades; and a challenging geopolitical context. 

The countries of the region can’t pin their hopes on one partner to overcome these major challenges. They should try to avoid taking sides between the US and China and to seek resources from both to restart growth. 

Moreover, they should cultivate relations with other countries – in Europe and other parts of Asia – to create a broader context for their foreign policy measures. Such an approach would be much easier under a Biden presidency, but it would become even more important for Latin America and its development should Donald Trump remain in the White House.