China versus the U.S. – Two superpowers and the fight for influence in Latin America and the Caribbean

Xi Jinping (China) shakes hands with Mauricio  Macri (Argentina)
Photo by Damir Sagolj

The United States has long been considered the hegemonic power of the world yet China’s increase in military expenditure, global integration, and global financial lending means that China is now threatening their position. Recent years have seen the increase in tensions between the two sides with China rapidly expanding its influence across the globe and the U.S. trying to hold on to the position it already has. 

Not only does the U.S. view itself as the military power of the world, it also sees itself as a benevolent leader who spreads democratic and just values. When comparing themselves to China, they claim that their foreign diplomacy is done with the best interests of the people, from both their country and the rest of the world, in mind. It is this conscious effort to protect and support citizens that the U.S. believes China doesn’t have. Over the past couple of decades, China’s presence has been hotly debated and increasingly easier to recognise in the Middle East and Africa. However, the Americas had not yet been fully integrated into the conversation until recent years. 

The U.S. has had huge cultural influence in the Americas alongside their political influence. However, with China’s tactic of creating interdependence with the region through trade and finances, they are slowly beginning to become the superpower that countries in the Americas turn to. This analysis of China versus the United States aims to see whether China’s approach to the region means that the newcomer will overtake the U.S. in economic influence and whether their method of doing so will have a positive effect on the region.

China versus the U.S. – Cultural Influence

The Americas consists of 35 countries spanning from Canada in the north to Chile in the south. The region has frequently been at the mercy of foreign influence, thanks to colonial legacies, and much of the Caribbean continues to include territories of colonial powers such as the United Kingdom, Denmark, and France. As the modern United States was founded my European immigrants, this meant that many of them had relatives, friends, and colleagues living and working across the two continents. Consequently, from the beginning of U.S. existence, there have been close ties between the nation and the rest of the Americas.

Further, there is a strong Latine presence in the modern-day United States especially in larger cities and the south west which was, until the 19th century, part of Mexico. Throughout the U.S., there are roughly 59 million Latines whilst China only has 4 million. Further, approximately 4.5 million Caribbean immigrants live in the U.S., making up 10% of the nation’s immigrant population. This can be attributed to the proximity of the U.S. to the Americas in comparison to China. This proximity also makes it easier for travel to the U.S. which helps to spread its cultural influence. Moreover, English (the national language of the United States) is more likely to be learned by citizens of the Americas than Mandarin Chinese. On top of that, parts of the U.S. are quickly becoming Hispanophone as Spanish dominates as the second most popular language. This removes the language barrier and makes U.S. commodities, such as Hollywood films, more accessible and thus a vital tool in spreading cultural influence at a greater rate than China.

Despite the looser historic connection to the region, people of Chinese descent are not strangers in the Americas. Peru, for example, has over one million Chinese descendants which make up about 5% of the population. Sadly, many Chinese descendants across the region can trace their history back to their ancestors being brought over by colonists as indentured servants after the abolition of slavery in the mid-1800s. However, their presence means that many countries have ‘Chinatowns’ in their major cities meaning that, whilst weak, China does have a cultural foothold in the region. Regardless, it is undeniable that U.S. cultural influence dominates in the Americas.

China versus the U.S. – Economic Influence

The proximity of the United States to Latin America and the Caribbean means that it has been able to capitalise on its potential to be a prominent trade partner, However, as the trade giant of the world, China’s imports and exports billions more dollars to the region per annum than the U.S. Over the past decade, imports from China to Latin America and the Caribbean have doubled from about $75 billion dollars to $150 billion dollars whilst exports to China have also steadily increased. Meanwhile, according to the United States Government census, exports have risen slowly whilst imports from the region have fallen by 10%. Consequently, China has proven themselves to be a more valuable trade partner for the region.

As well as their status as a reliable trade partner, China has also been a reliable investor through executing their Belt and Road initiative. The Belt and Road initiative began with the objective to build trade links between China and the Middle East in order to connect them to Europe and Africa for trade. In 2018, Latin America and the Caribbean were invited to join the initiative which, for them, focused on expanding partnerships that aimed to improve their trade connections. Now, in Latin America and the Caribbean, China has invested over $1 trillion into infrastructure projects, especially those which focus on trade and energy. Many of these projects have been a huge success and have strengthen the diplomatic relations between China and countries of the region. For example, the Belgrano Cargas rail expansion has been a national priority for increasing trade throughout Argentina for many years. However, before China’s partnerships, many western countries, including the U.S., had refused to fund the initiative. As a result, China’s participation was welcomed enthusiastically and has had a tangible positive effect in Argentina.

On the other hand, the Belt and Road initiative has been known to have drawbacks that are currently starting to catch up with some of the countries. Many cite Sri Lanka as an example of why countries should not enter into so many deals with Chinese investors. In 2017, Colombo entered a deal to lease its Hambantota port to a Chinese-majority joint venture after it was seemingly unable to repay its previous loans. Some warn that Latin American countries may soon face a similar fate of needing to repay China with its assets in the future after its amounted too much debt. Some countries have accumulated substantial debt and now must rely on Chinese commodities. Others, such as Venezuela and Ecuador, continue to take loans from the Chinese government but, without adequate financial reserves, owe China important commodities such as oil. This proves to be an unfortunate argument against China as may countries have seen Beijing as a preferential investor as their deals do not come with a substantial number of strings attached. As the history of the U.S. in the region will show, the same cannot be said about Washington.

China versus the U.S. – Strategic Influence

It is not a secret that the United States sees themselves as a benevolent do-gooder in the world of foreign affairs. Across the globe, the U.S. has been known to intervene in national and regional issues in order to bring about what is ‘right’. This has included going to war, supporting authoritarian leaders, and creating trade embargoes in order to protect citizens and, somewhat ‘coincidentally’, support U.S. prerogatives. Whilst this makes the U.S. sound like dictator instead of a friendly mentor, the Washington is able to justify their actions on the basis that they are promoting the Western value of democracy and protecting human rights. Whilst Beijing has engaged with somewhat controversial regimes, the U.S. is reluctant to provide aid or financial investments unless the regime that they are supporting is upholding these aforementioned principles. In the Americas, a hub of gang violence and dictatorships, this has proved frustrating and frustrating to many – but are their choices correct?

Ortega in Nicaragua leads an authoritarian dictatorship where he jails and tortures political opponents, journalists, and, sometimes, their families. Protests in Nicaragua against the regime are often meant with violent repression from Ortega’s policemen. This has resulted in loss of life for many protestors and infringements on the right to free speech and assembly for thousands. The United States chooses to engage in deals that they believe will improve the country’s prosperity, security and democratic governance. As a result, the means that Washington is only likely to engage in diplomatic trade deals with Managua when they can be assured that the Sandinista regime will not use the support provided to continue to repress the people of Nicaragua. On the other hand, China has prided itself on to intervening in the politics of other countries. Whilst some may say this is admirable, it has meant that China has provided support to countries such as Nicaragua even when the government has been known to misuse THEIR SUPPORT. This is particularly problematic in the run up to elections when politicians will turn to China so that they’re able to quickly secure funds to support their re-election instead having to go through the process of proving to the U.S. that they will be a responsible and democratic leader.

We can also question whether China’s funding can be apolitical or whether it was ever apolitical at all. Evidence for the latter lies in their recent deals with Nicaragua. In November of 2021, Beijing gave Nicaragua one million Covid-19 vaccinations after the Ortega regime chose to cut ties with Taiwan. The Chinese government sees Taiwan as a breakaway territory that belongs to China instead of a sovereign nation (as many Taiwanese people want). In recent months, a few Central American countries have changed their stance on recognising Taiwan after Panama switched recognition in 2020. This is an important political step considering that more than half of the countries that recognise Taiwan are located in Latin America and the Caribbean. These countries that have since changed their stance, like Nicaragua, have reaped implicit rewards from China. Whilst the Vice President of Panama claims that there was no pre-discussed agreement of preferential treatment from their friends in Asia, these examples raise the question as to whether China’s foreign relations are truly apolitical.

Moreover, the commitment to an apolitical stance has gotten China into some difficult situations in a couple circumstances and, in a region filled with complex political relations, it will most likely occur again. In March 2019, the Inter-American Development Bank had planned to host a meeting of its 48 member countries in China. In planning this meeting, Beijing had to decide whether they wanted to invite Juan Guaido or Nicolas Maduro from Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro has been the president of Venezuela since 2013. However, after he ran undemocratic elections in 2019 that resulted in his re-election, his presidency has been hotly debated. Instead, Juan Guaido is recognised by the UN as the true president of Venezuela since he has the popular support of the people. Many countries recognise Guaido’s presidency including many of the countries in the IADB. However, China (amongst others including Russia) support Maduro’s claim to office. It was the controversy of deciding whether or not they would invite Maduro that led China to cancelling the IADB meeting weeks before it was meant to take place. This therefore provides an example of how China cannot easily ignore the politics occurring throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and must soon revoke its apolitical standpoint if it ever hopes to dominate influence in the region.

China versus the U.S. – The Showdown

I have shown how the U.S. involves themselves in the politics of the region but does so on a moral standpoint whilst China’s involvement does not seem to be committed to western ideals. But is the U.S. approach better? Many would argue that both are equally as troublesome.

Firstly, the United States involves themselves in the region in areas that they see as important to them. This means that the U.S. takes great interest in areas that are the source of migrant groups, as exemplified through Biden’s root causes strategy, and in areas that are important in the drug war, such as Colombia. The Washington focus on security issues such as these have left some countries stranded whilst also supporting U.S. prerogatives over those of the host nation. For example, the U.S. has been known to support right wing governments and train military troops (such as what occurred during the Colombian drug war) that wreak havoc within the country. This has left many dissatisfied with the American interventionist approach and therefore China’s distant support is seen as a blessing.

Further, this focus on security prerogatives has also created hotspots of American attention leaving many other countries stranded. For example, the Caribbean region is in desperate need of aid and infrastructure funding in order to deal with the ever-worsening climate crisis. However, as the Caribbean is already a very democratic and peaceful region, their needs are often overlooked by U.S. decision makers. This means that they are likely to support China so long as China is willing to provide them with the funding they so desperately need. Consequently, it will be interesting to see how relations between Beijing and the Caribbean especially play out in years to come.

Finally, I must mention how it is important to consider how lots of the perceptions of China that we see (including those I have used to write this article) are plagued with a western hatred of the solidified superpower. As stated at the beginning of this article, a lot of the hatred for China is derived from fear. Needless to say, much of this fear is indeed rooted in the desires of western Caucasians for western domination and white supremacy. Some suspicions that have been raised about China’s work in Latin America – such as the thoughts that they may be tracking or spying on American embassies (see phenomena such as ‘Havana Syndrome’ that have affected many embassies) or that they may be secretly strategically placing military bases throughout the region (such as the Chinese space station in Patagonia) – that pose serious security threats and show that China has self-interested ulterior motives at the heart of all their work. However, this may be somewhat rooted in Western distrust for the Asian superpower and, even if this is not the case, can we wholeheartedly claim that the work of the U.S. is any better?

The answer as to who will win in the fight between China and the U.S. in the Americas is one that is still yet to be answered. The language and proximity factors mean that it is unlikely that the U.S. will stop being the dominant cultural influence. However, China’s ‘no strings attached’ and apolitical financial lending approach may mean that some countries choose to shift their alliance towards Beijing. The more interesting and, perhaps, subjective question emerges when we question which country’s approach is correct. The work of the U.S. has had negative effects on the region throughout history, but it seems as if China’s work may one day cause similar problems.

By Maddie Whitehead