China’s Growing Influence in Latin America
Backgrounder

China’s Growing Influence in Latin America

Over the past two decades, China has developed close economic and security ties with many Latin American countries, including Brazil and Venezuela. But Beijing’s growing sway in the region has raised concerns in Washington and beyond.
China is helping to build a new national library in San Salvador, El Salvador.
China is helping to build a new national library in San Salvador, El Salvador. Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty Images
Summary
  • China is South America’s top trading partner and a major source of both foreign direct investment and lending in energy and infrastructure, including through its Belt and Road Initiative. 
  • It has invested heavily in Latin America’s space sector and has strengthened its military ties with several countries, particularly Venezuela.
  • Washington is wary of these developments, and critics say Beijing is leveraging its economic might to further its strategic goals. 

Introduction

China’s role in Latin America has grown rapidly since 2000, promising economic opportunity even while raising concerns over Beijing’s influence. China’s state firms are major investors in the region’s energy, infrastructure, and space industries, and the country has surpassed the United States as South America’s largest trading partner. Beijing has also expanded its diplomatic, cultural, and military presence. Most recently, it has leveraged its support in the fight against COVID-19, supplying the region with medical equipment, loans, and hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.

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But the United States and its allies fear that Beijing is using these relationships to pursue its geopolitical goals, including the further isolation of Taiwan, and to bolster authoritarian regimes. U.S. President Joe Biden, who sees China as a “strategic competitor” in the region, is seeking ways to counter its growing sway.

What is China’s history with Latin America?

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China’s ties to the region date to the sixteenth century, when the Manila galleon trade route facilitated the exchange of porcelain, silk, and spices between China and Mexico. By the 1840s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants were being sent to work as “coolies,” or indentured servants, in Cuba and Peru, often on sugar plantations or in silver mines. Over the next century, China’s ties to the region were largely migration-related [PDF] as Beijing remained preoccupied with its own domestic upheaval.

Most Latin American countries recognized Mao Zedong’s communist government following U.S. President Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing in 1972, but it was not until after China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 that they began to form robust cultural, economic, and political ties. Today, Peru has the region’s largest Chinese diaspora community, amounting to about 5 percent of the population, or one million people. Other countries with large diaspora communities include Brazil, Cuba, Paraguay, and Venezuela. 

How have economic relations developed?

In 2000, the Chinese market accounted for less than 2 percent of Latin America’s exports, but China’s rapid growth and resulting demand drove the region’s subsequent commodities boom. Over the next eight years, trade grew at an average annual rate of 31 percent, reaching a value of $180 billion in 2010. By 2021, trade totaled $450 billion, and economists predict that it could exceed $700 billion by 2035. China is currently South America’s top trading partner and the second-largest for Latin America as a whole, after the United States.

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Latin American exports to China are mainly soybeans, copper, petroleum, oil, and other raw materials that the country needs to drive its industrial development. In return, the region mostly imports higher-value-added manufactured products, a trade some experts say has undercut local industries with cheaper Chinese goods. Beijing has free trade agreements in place with Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru, and twenty Latin American countries have so far signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). (Talks on a free trade agreement with Ecuador began in February 2022.)

Chinese overseas foreign direct investment (OFDI) and loans also play a major role. In 2020, Chinese OFDI in Latin America amounted to roughly $17 billion, mostly in South America. Meanwhile, the state-owned China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China are among the region’s leading lenders; between 2005 and 2020, they together loaned some $137 billion to Latin American governments, often in exchange for oil and used to fund energy and infrastructure projects. Venezuela is the biggest borrower; it’s taken on loans worth $62 billion since 2007. China is also a voting member of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank.

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However, these ties have raised some concerns, particularly among regional governments. While Chinese loans often have fewer conditions attached, dependence on them can push economically unstable countries such as Venezuela into what critics call “debt traps” that could result in default. Critics also say that Chinese companies bring lower environmental and labor standards, and they warn that China’s growing control over critical infrastructure such as energy grids poses national security risks. There are also fears of economic dependency in countries such as Chile, which sent nearly 39 percent of its total exports to China in 2020.

What are China’s political interests in the region?

At the forefront is China’s desire to expand its sphere of influence through what it calls “South-South cooperation” [PDF], a development framework focused on aid, investment, and trade. China’s focus on soft power—including strengthening cultural and educational ties—has helped Beijing build political goodwill with local governments and present itself as a viable alternative partner to the United States and European states.

Since former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s landmark thirteen-day tour of Latin America in 2001, there have been dozens of high-level political exchanges. President Xi Jinping has visited the region eleven times since he took office in 2013. In addition to several bilateral agreements with countries in the region, China has signed comprehensive strategic partnerships—the highest classification it awards to its diplomatic allies—with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.

China’s push to isolate Taiwan is another major factor. With Beijing refusing diplomatic relations with countries that recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, Latin America’s support for the island has dwindled in recent years; only eight countries in the region still recognize it. The Dominican Republic and Nicaragua most recently flipped their positions after being offered financial incentives by China, including loans and infrastructure investments. Experts say the remaining holdouts, such as Haiti, are facing increased pressure.

Meanwhile, some observers say growing China-Latin America ties are bolstering authoritarian governments, including those in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. China’s role in such countries is that of “an incubator of populism,” says Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. “It’s not that China’s trying to produce antidemocratic regimes, but that antidemocratic regimes find a willing partner in the Chinese.”

What security ties do they have?

Chinese government strategy on Latin America, as defined in its 2015 Defense Strategy White Paper and others, has underscored the importance of security and defense cooperation. China’s efforts to forge stronger military ties with its Latin American counterparts include arms sales, military exchanges, and training programs. 

Venezuela became the region’s top purchaser of Chinese military hardware after the U.S. government prohibited all commercial arms sales to the country beginning in 2006. Between 2009 and 2019, Beijing reportedly sold more than $615 million worth of weapons to Venezuela. Bolivia and Ecuador have also purchased millions of dollars worth of Chinese military aircraft, ground vehicles, air defense radars, and assault rifles [PDF]. Cuba has sought to strengthen military ties with China, hosting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for several port visits.

China’s growing presence is also visible in its participation in peacekeeping operations in Haiti, as well as its military training exercises and provision of supplies to local law enforcement across the region. For example, China has provided Bolivian police departments with anti-riot gear and military vehicles, and donated transportation equipment and motorcycles to police forces in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

What has been China’s role during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Many analysts say China’s “COVID-19 diplomacy” in Latin America is an effort to improve its image and curry favor with regional governments. This has included distributing medical equipment such as ventilators, diagnostic test kits, and masks; offering billions of dollars in loans for countries to purchase Chinese vaccines; and investing in local vaccine production facilities.

China has delivered more than three hundred million vaccine doses to Latin America, over three times that provided to the region by the global COVAX initiative. Additionally, at least a dozen countries in the region have signed vaccine contracts with Beijing, some of which include technology transfers and research cooperation with Chinese vaccine developer Sinovac. Chile is among the top recipients, with 75 percent of its COVID-19 vaccination coverage coming from Chinese vaccines; Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have also purchased hundreds of millions of doses.

Some countries have raised concerns over Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy. Honduras and Paraguay, for instance, alleged that they faced pressure to renounce their recognition of Taiwan in exchange for doses. Some analysts suspect that China is also using its vaccine leverage to push for the expansion of Huawei, the controversial Chinese telecommunications giant. In Brazil, regulators reversed an earlier decision to bar Huawei from developing the country’s 5G networks weeks after China provided millions of vaccine doses.

What are other major areas of bilateral cooperation?

Energy. Between 2000 and 2018, China invested $73 billion in Latin America’s raw materials sector, including by building refineries and processing plants in countries with significant amounts of coal, copper, natural gas, oil, and uranium. More recently, Beijing has invested roughly $4.5 billion in lithium production in Mexico and the so-called Lithium Triangle countries of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile; together, the triad contains more than half of the world’s lithium, a metal necessary for the production of batteries.

Chinese state-owned firms are heavily involved in energy development; PowerChina, for example, has more than fifty ongoing projects across fifteen Latin American countries. The scale and scope of these efforts are stoking environmental and health worries. China has also taken an interest in the region’s renewable energy sector. The China Development Bank has funded major solar and wind projects, such as Latin America’s largest solar plant in Jujuy, Argentina, and the Punta Sierra wind farm in Coquimbo, Chile. 

Infrastructure. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay are members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Beijing has also financed construction projects [PDF] across the region, focusing on dams, ports, and railways. However, several large-scale endeavors, including a massive canal in Nicaragua and a mega railway connecting Brazil and Peru, remain stalled due to environmental concerns, financing issues, and local political opposition. 

China is concentrated on “new infrastructure,” such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, smart cities, and 5G technology from telecom firms such as Huawei. Despite U.S. warnings against using Huawei equipment, which policymakers say leaves countries vulnerable to Chinese cyber threats, Argentina and Brazil, among others, depend on it for their cellular networks.

Space. Beijing has also sought to strengthen space cooperation with Latin America, beginning with joint China-Brazil satellite research and production in 1988. China’s largest non-domestic space facility is located in Argentina’s Patagonian Desert, and it has satellite ground stations in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

How has the United States responded?

U.S. policymakers and military officials have raised concerns about China’s growing presence in Latin America while Washington shifted its focus toward the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. “We are losing our positional advantage in this Hemisphere and immediate action is needed to reverse this trend,” argued Admiral Craig S. Faller [PDF], the former head of U.S. Southern Command, in 2021. President Donald Trump took a more hard-line approach than his predecessors by imposing sanctions on several countries and reducing funding to regional organizations. Some analysts say this drove certain governments closer to Beijing. Trump also stepped back from trade relations with the region, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

President Biden, who took the lead on Latin America policy during his tenure as vice president to Barack Obama, has long argued that the United States should renew its leadership in the region to counter a rising China. Calling China a “strategic competitor” [PDF] and pledging to strengthen U.S. partnerships in the Western Hemisphere, Biden launched Build Back Better World (B3W) with his counterparts in the Group of Seven to counter China’s BRI. An international economic initiative aimed at developing infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries, including in Latin America, B3W still faces major questions on budget, timelines, and other aspects. Moreover, his administration has sought to shore up support for Taiwan; rapidly increased its vaccine donations to the region, which totaled some sixty-five million doses by early 2022; and continued to raise concerns about Huawei. Still, some experts say Biden is still not focusing enough on the region, particularly on trade.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is considering several bills that focus on competition with China. These include the United States Innovation and Competition Act and the America COMPETES Act of 2022, both of which aim to challenge China’s dominance in Latin America’s science and technology sectors by increasing U.S. investment in research and development. Among other proposals is bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) that seeks to counter China’s “malign influence” in the region by strengthening multilateral security cooperation and counternarcotics efforts.

Recommended Resources

This Congressional Research Service report details China’s engagement with Latin America [PDF].

This International Monetary Fund working paper explains how China has been a major source of foreign direct investment in Latin America since the mid-2010s.

Latin America is the latest battleground for great-power competition between the United States and China, write Ciara Nugent and Charlie Campbell for Time magazine.

For the Carter Center, Margaret Myers and Rebecca Ray examine China’s impact [PDF] on regional development and stability.

For the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, the Atlantic Council’s Wazim Mowla and Pepe Zhang look at how China has leveraged its relationships with Latin American countries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Will Merrow created the graphics for this Backgrounder.

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