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Increasing Chinese Influence on Latin America

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Latin America has become a place that the United States (US) sees as its sphere of influence until the 21st century, following the decline of the Spanish Empire as a global power. The US defined the region as its backyard by the Monroe Doctrine and warned the European states by stating that it would respond to any intervention in the region. No matter which doctrinal approach played a decisive role in American foreign policy over time, this situation has not changed and has continued until today.

On the other hand, the Chinese economy, which has been following a policy of opening since the 1980s, has made a great leap forward. By the twenty-first century, China has increased its effect in Latin America as well as in the rest of the world. Thus, China’s influence has increased in the region that the Washington administration sees as its backyard.

The Beijing administration’s activity in the region through the Belt-Road Project has alarmed the US, which is already skeptical of the project and offers alternative regional trade agreements to the states. This is because 22 of the 30 countries in Latin America participate in the Belt-Road Project.[1] Considering that the number of participations is so high, together with the increasing trade volume of China in the region, it can be said that Beijing is seen as a reliable partner by the regional capitals.

Thanks to agreements made in various fields, Latin America-China trade relations are getting stronger day by day. For example, Latin American exports to the Chinese market in 2000 comprised less than 2% of the overall market volume.[2] However, by 2010, the trade volume between the parties increased by 31% and 180 billion dollars.[3]

Despite the developing economic relations, it is difficult to say that relations always have a positive content. As a matter of fact, while the intense fishing activities carried out by China near the region seriously damage the fish stocks of the countries. On the other hand, it causes serious wounds in the ecosystem of the region.[4] In this context, although the increased fishing activities are not carried out within the borders of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the countries, the actions of Chinese fishermen outside of the EEZ regions directly harm the economies and natural resources of the countries in the region.

Commercial Relations

When we look at the trade between the parties, soybeans, copper, oil, and other raw materials stand out as the main elements of Latin America’s exports to China. On the other hand, China sells value-added products to the region. In this context, it can be said that local producers cannot compete with China’s cheap value-added products in the region.

China’s foreign direct investments are another factor that plays a dominant role in the region. As of 2019, Beijing’s foreign direct investments in Latin American countries reached approximately 17 billion dollars.[5] In the same period, US direct investments in the region amounted to around 243 billion dollars.[6]

As can be seen, there is a huge gap between foreign direct investment rates of the US and China. Nevertheless, this situation does not mean that China’s influence in the region is low. Because China Development Bank and China Import-Export Bank are among the actors that give the most loans to the countries in the region. Between 2005 and 2020, these two banks lent approximately 137 billion dollars to the countries of the region to be used in energy and infrastructure projects.[7]

Although Chinese loans are only used as economic relations without interfering to the internal affairs of the states, it is a fact that the countries of the region are worried about falling into the so-called “debt trap.” For example, in countries such as Venezuela, which has an economically unstable structure, economic uncertainties may cause countries to be overwhelmed by the debts taken from China.

Security Relations

In the context of security, China’s interest in Latin America is clearly accented in the white papers published by the Beijing administration. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping, during a speech he delivered at the Mexican Senate on June 5, 2013, stated that “China and Latin America, by adhering to the principles of sincerity and friendship, should continue to consolidate understanding and support on issues regarding each other’s core interests and concerns.”[8] In addition, in the document “China’s Military Strategy” published in 2015, it was underlined that the level of military relations with Latin America would be increased.[9]  This situation shows that the parties are trying to understand each other on fragile issues and are willing to develop military relations. This situation also can be perceived as a commitment made by China to Latin American countries not to interfere in “domestic matters.”

Arms sales and training programs are at the center of military ties between Latin America and China. For example, between 2009 and 2019, Venezuela imported 615-million-dollar worth of weapons from China.[10]  On the other hand, China’s donation of equipment to Bolivian police departments and participation in peacekeeping operations in Haiti[11] can be interpreted as steps taken by the Beijing administration to expand its influence in the region.

As a result, China, on the one hand, gives loans to the countries of the region and includes these states in the Belt-Road Project through the “Maritime Silk Road”, on the other hand, it develops its military relations with the region and sells weapons. China’s participation in peacekeeping activities in the region and the equipment donations of regional countries’ law enforcers can be described as an effort to gain soft power over the countries. In this context, it can be said that the US-China competition, which took place in many parts of the world, has come to the fore in Latin America, which the Washington administration sees as its backyard.


[1] Chris Devonshire-Ellis, “China Massively Expands Diplomacy And Investments in Latin America and the Caribbean”, Silk Road Briefing, www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2022/03/01/china-massively-expands-diplomacy-and-investments-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/#:~:text=China-Latin%20America%20Trade%20%26%20Investment%20Trends&text=In%202020%2C%20China%27s%20direct%20investment,implying%20a%20significant%20YoY%20increase, (Date of Accession: 29.10.2022).

[2] Diana Roy, “China’s Growing Influence in Latin America”, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-influence-latin-america-argentina-brazil-venezuela-security-energy-bri, (Date of Accession: 20.10.2022).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Steven Lee Myers vd., “How China Targets the Global Fish Supply”, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/09/26/world/asia/china-fishing-south-america.html, (Date of Accession: 01.11.2022).

[5] Enrique Dussel Peters, “Monitor of Chinese OFDI in Latin America and the Caribbean 2020”, Red ALC-China, www.redalc-china.org/monitor/images/pdfs/menuprincipal/DusselPetersMonitorOFDI2020Eng.pdf, (Date of Accession: 01.11.2022).

[6] “Direct Investment position of the United States in Central and South America from 2000 to 2021”, Statista, www.statista.com/statistics/188585/united-states-direct-investments-in-north-and-south-america-since-2000/, (Date of Accession: 02.11.2022).

[7] Diana Roy, “China’s Growing Influence in Latin America”, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-influence-latin-america-argentina-brazil-venezuela-security-energy-bri, (Date of Accession: 20.10.2022).

[8] Xi Jinping, Çin’in Yönetimi, Kaynak Yayınları, Ankara 2017, s. 359.

[9] “Full text: China’s Military Strategy”, China Daily, www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-05/26/content_20820628_7.htm, (Date of Accession: 01.11.2022).

[10] Diana Roy, “China’s Growing Influence in Latin America”, Council on Foreign Relations, www.cfr.org/backgrounder/china-influence-latin-america-argentina-brazil-venezuela-security-energy-bri, (Date of Accession: 20.10.2022).

[11] Ibid.

Elcan TOKMAK
Elcan Tokmak, 2022 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü’nden mezun olmuştur. Halihazırda ANKASAM bünyesindeki stajına devam eden Tokmak; Çin, Kore ve Japonya üzerine çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Tokmak, ileri düzeyde İngilizce, orta seviyede Çince ve başlangıç düzeyinde Korece bilmektedir.