China's Latin America diplomacy grows more aggressive
The "no strings attached" myth of Chinese aid to the region is giving way to wolf warrior diplomacy that uses threats, sanctions and disinformation.
In The Three Body Problem sci-fi trilogy by Cixin Liu, there is a moment at the beginning of the third book (minor spoiler in this sentence) when the power of the sword holder transfers to a different person and Earth’s opponents use that moment to strike, taking advantage of the uncertainty within the power transition.
At 12:04 PM on 20 January, China sanctioned 27 former officials from the Trump administration just minutes after Joe Biden was inaugurated as president. Those officials, including former Secretary of State Pompeo and former National Security Advisors Robert O'Brien and John Bolton, are not allowed to travel to China or conduct business in China. The move was in clear retaliation for the Trump administration’s policies towards China including his push to sanction members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Imagine being a Latin American government official and seeing those sanctions. Perhaps there is a bit of schadenfreude or nervous laughter at the sanctions against Trump-supporting officials. Who doesn’t like to see the US forced to take its own medicine from time to time?
But China’s use of sanctions to target former US officials is part of a wider effort for China to exercise real levers of pressure across the hemisphere. Every Latin American official and business executive must now wonder if they too will be hit by politically-motivated Chinese sanctions and what might those sanctions mean for their personal economic situation as China’s influence becomes more prominent in the region.
There have been dozens of thought pieces as to how the new Biden administration will work to counter the challenge of China in Latin America. However, what has emerged is the fact that China is going on the offensive while the Biden administration is still getting its footing.
This is part of a longer process in which China is pivoting from a “no strings attached” myth regarding its trade deals and foreign assistance to a more aggressive “wolf warrior diplomacy” posture in which it uses sticks, threats and information warfare as well as carrots to defend its positions. Beijing’s diplomacy has always had some elements of this bad cop approach, but in Latin America they focused heavily on building a narrative of a more equal relationship that stood in contrast to the US position to leverage aid as part of pushing for democracy, human rights, anti-corruption and free trade (sometimes in an inconsistent and self-serving way).
A few other articles published in the past week further demonstrate this pivot.
Brazilian media reported last weekend that China was holding the promise of vaccines to Brazil as leverage to get better behavior from the Bolsonaro government. One outlet suggested China was demanding the removal of Brazil’s foreign minister in exchange for the vaccines. On Monday, China released several tons of chemicals that will allow Brazil to manufacture over five million doses of the vaccine. In return, Bolsonaro issued some rare praise of China and glossed over the recent controversies over the effectiveness data.
China is becoming more active in assisting countries in evading US sanctions. Bloomberg reported on how Venezuelan oil is making its way to China using crude blends and manipulated documents. There have been reports about this previously, but it’s notable that China is taking an active role in helping the Maduro regime evade sanctions and giving them a financial lifeline for oil that is supposed to be prohibited.
On the information front, AP reports that China is actively pushing disinformation regarding the vaccines produced in the US and Europe as part of the campaign to market its own vaccine. Stung by data inconsistencies and doubts among the Latin American public, Chinese media are pushing a narrative that the Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines are causing illnesses or not as effective as marketed. Latin American government officials are simply trying to get any vaccine program off the ground and already face a skeptical region where a significant percentage of people are doubtful or actively anti-vaccine. Having Chinese propaganda undermining the credibility of some of the best (and most expensive) vaccines on the market is going to harm that effort.
In its new aggressive stance, China will be looking for allies and it may have opportunities. As the Biden administration focuses more on anti-corruption and the environment, the Latin American presidents who were previously more pro-Trump including Mexican President Lopez Obrador may find themselves pivoting towards Beijing.
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For a different take on China’s recent actions, read this article by Margaret Myers. For those who want more security-related information, this report from Evan Ellis published late last year has good details.
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