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Overcoming the bias barrier

It would be in the US interests to cooperate with China to jointly promote the prosperity and development of Latin America


In recent years, the constantly evolving China-US relationship has had spillover effects in Latin America, with the United States' claiming that China's engagement with Latin America poses a threat to US interests in the region, a claim that is ill-founded.

From the perspective of bilateral trade, although China has become Latin America's second-largest trading partner, the bilateral trade volume was only one-third of that between the US and Latin America in the years from 2012 to 2021. Furthermore, China and the US have different major trading partners in Latin America, and the trade patterns are showing significant differences.

And while China's direct investment in Latin America has substantially increased from previous levels over the past 10-plus years, it is far less than that from the US and European countries due to their long-term cultivation of the Latin American market. In the meantime, since China and the US are in different development stages, their investment interests and fields also differ from each other.

Chinese finance in Latin America has always been a closely watched topic in the US, but the conclusions drawn are often full of preconceptions and overgeneralization. The aforementioned factors have inevitably resulted in a bias against China, and therefore the increasing tendency to perceive China's intentions and capabilities under a securitized and threat-based lens.

In addition, the US has mounting concerns over the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative to Latin America. It has directly or indirectly exerted pressure on Latin American countries to prevent them from joining the initiative, and launched alternative proposals--such as the Growth in the Americas and Build Back Better World--to compete with the Belt and Road Initiative. The China-CELAC Forum, which aims to promote China's collective cooperation with all 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, has been perceived as having negative impact on the US' strategic interests in the Western Hemisphere.

The establishment, or reestablishment, of diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Nicaragua have also been over-interpreted by the US side. Two acts approved by the US Senate and House over the past year, the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 and the America COMPETES Act of 2022, require a strategy to strengthen US economic competitiveness, which involves, among other things, increasing exports of US goods and services to Latin America, authorizing a tenth general capital increase for the Inter-American Development Bank and expanding US educational and cultural diplomacy in the region and so forth.

Apparently, all these approaches are targeted at improving the US ability to compete with China in Latin America. At the recently concluded Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, the US announced "Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity" and other initiatives, which, while seemingly broad in general, are widely seen as aiming at countering China's growing clout in Latin America. Yet, as a matter of fact, it is beyond doubt that China has never posed any substantive challenge or threat to US interests in the region, no matter from the perspective of China's capability or intention. For China, any proposition or idea to take Latin America as a new battlefield for China-US competition is both inappropriate and dangerous.

To form normal and secure China-US-Latin America relations, each of the three parties, particularly China and the US, should take everything into consideration based on the history and current state of their interactions. For the US, a more prosperous, equal and stable Latin America could better serve its interests. It should make cooperation with China and other relevant parties on Latin American issues of common interest a policy objective. As far as China is concerned, it should have a more rational assessment of the US-Latin America consensus and China-Latin America differences, thus rationally evaluating the US influence in Latin America.

In the wake of Latin American countries' growing significance in China's global strategy, China should improve and reform its policies toward the region accordingly, focusing on the following three aspects.

To start with, the content of the China-Latin America partnership should be enriched with a more open mind. Currently, development of bilateral relations is mainly based on or serves bilateral pragmatic cooperation in the economic field. Under the new situation, with economic cooperation as the cornerstone, China could consider realizing the transformation from an economic partner of the region toward an all-round stakeholder, laying a solid foundation for the further improvement of bilateral engagement.

Second, in addition to emphasizing such principles and goals as mutual benefit and win-win results, China should also pay high attention to the improvement of people's livelihoods in Latin America. It could boost its development aid or expand cooperation in relevant fields to offer concrete external support for Latin American countries' endeavors in poverty alleviation, inequality reduction and protection of the local natural environment and conservation of the local ecological system. Such concerns and practices could help consolidate China-Latin America consensus on global development agendas.

Third, given the current situation in the so-called "triangular relationship" among China, the US and Latin America, China should attach strategic priority to countries and regions that have already established influential or close cooperative relationships with China. Building upon the foundation of existing cooperation efforts and consolidating achievements, China should vigorously explore new cooperation fields. For instance, bilateral or multilateral cooperation patterns or pathways could be explored on urgent and frontier issues and fields such as post-pandemic economic recovery, bridging the infrastructure gap, coping with climate change, promoting energy transformation, advancing the digital revolution and technological innovation, and developing the circular economy. In areas or industries that China has comparative advantages, China should intensify exchanges and sharing and increase financing support for Latin American countries.

In the meantime, when possible, China should seek the resumption of bilateral consultations and dialogues with the US on Latin American issues, so as to prevent unnecessary misunderstandings or potential conflicts. China should also continue to maintain an optimistic perspective and open-mindedness toward trilateral cooperation, so as to jointly promote prosperity and development of Latin America.

The author is an associate professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn