China’s breakthroughs in Latin America and the Caribbean require a new strategy


The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry officially abandoned diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and established relations with China last week. “The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government that represents all of China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory,” the ministry said in a statement.

This decision is a blow to the island state and a major diplomatic victory for Beijing. The change in diplomatic recognition also indicates that China continues to make inroads in Latin America and the Caribbean at the expense of the United States in the new Cold War in which Beijing and Washington are engaged.

Only fourteen countries still formally recognize Taiwan. That could change if Honduras were to switch, which is a separate possibility. The situation becomes even bleaker if any of the remaining Caribbean and Latin American countries can be reversed. Those who remain loyal (so far) to Taiwan are Honduras and Guatemala in Central America, Paraguay in South America and Belize, Haiti, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Saint Kitts and Nevis. In the Caribbean.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party regard Taiwan as a separatist province and have every intention of effecting eventual reunification whether the islanders wish it or not. Taiwan’s very existence as an independent democracy at the gates of the mainland is a threat to a Chinese Communist Party that firmly believes in the Leninist idea of ​​one-party rule. Therefore, China has long waged a campaign to erase any recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty by other countries and companies. To achieve this goal, China uses market access for business and the attraction of foreign aid for countries in return for adhering to a “one China” policy, which effectively means that all diplomatic relations are with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the end of recognition of Taiwan.

China embarked on a more intense campaign to seriously erode Taiwan’s diplomatic position in 2016 when pro-independence Tsai Ing-wen became president. She identified two key issues in his victory speech. First, she stressed Taiwan’s commitment to democracy, calling it a “deeply rooted” value. [sic] among the Taiwanese people. This, of course, highlights a major difference between Taiwan’s democratic and China’s authoritarian political systems. The second problem was the tenuous relationship with Beijing. President Tsai carefully noted that the two sides “have a responsibility to find mutually acceptable means of interaction, based on dignity and reciprocity” which guarantees “no provocation or accident”. Since then, Xi has stepped up military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, both using the threat of military force (frequently violating the island’s airspace) and attacking Taiwan’s diplomatic representation.

Although the United States officially recognizes the PRC as the representative of China, it is also a big supporter of Taiwan. US military forces periodically balance Chinese threats against the island, and the US government sells sophisticated weapons to Taiwan. Therefore, China’s gains in Latin America and the Caribbean give it an opportunity to counter US actions in Asia, such as US support for Taiwan and Democratic protestors in Hong Kong, as well as maintaining the sea. of southern China as an open waterway.

By cleverly using the art of economic governance, China has extended its Belt and Road (BRI) initiative to the Americas, offering substantial business opportunities and financial largesse, especially in infrastructure. The region has also become important for China, as it seeks to obtain raw materials such as oil, ores and minerals. So far nineteen Latin American countries and the Caribbean joined the BIS, including Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Antigua and Barbuda.

China has also been quite willing to sell high-tech military hardware and surveillance systems to governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, carry out disinformation, disinformation and propaganda operations against the United States and their allies in the region and to support anti-American regimes like Cuba. and Venezuela. The Chinese narrative is that China is a good economic partner, has a successful development model (a combination of state capitalism and authoritarianism), and is ready to invest in regional development. This is meant to make a stark contrast to the United States, whose state publications such as Xinhua and the World time the stress is torn by racial violence, high crime rates and poverty. China also cites a meager response from the US government to the Covid-19 pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean.

China’s economic art of governing has been effective in driving countries away from Taiwan, especially recently in Central America and the Caribbean. Panama, a longtime ally of Taiwan, defected to China in 2017. El Salvador and the Dominican Republic followed in 2018. Now Nicaragua has followed suit. In each case, economic considerations dominated. When El Salvador changed sides, its then president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, proclaimed the “extraordinary opportunities” that would come from recognizing China. Indeed, other Central American leaders are aware of the influx of development projects in Panama following the diplomatic about-face of this country.

Of course, China’s growing role in Latin America and the Caribbean has not been without its challenges. There have been complaints about the use of Chinese labor versus local workers, a disregard for environmental regulations, often opaque corporate balance sheets, and a willingness to resort to corruption. China’s record in delivering projects is not as good as it claims. In addition, large Chinese state-owned enterprises, often in the energy and mining sectors, have demonstrated difficulty in dealing with indigenous communities, being rooted in a corporate culture that emphasizes labor agreements. leader to leader on community outreach.

However, the potential of Chinese aid to help finance large infrastructure projects remains attractive. This is all the more true as aid from the United States and other Western countries has become scarce since the financial crisis of 2008. United States foreign aid also requires greater transparency and disclosure as well. as feasibility and environmental studies.

The United States and Taiwan are well aware of China’s penetration into Latin America and the Caribbean. Under the Trump administration, American pressure on the region not to abandon Taiwan and resist Chinese promises has intensified. As part of the response, Washington launched its Growth in the Americas initiative (better known in the region as America Crece), which highlights the expertise of the U.S. private sector in infrastructure development. He also lectured the region on the dangers of China’s debt trap diplomacy, according to which Beijing is gaining influence by intentionally over-lending and taking control of assets when debt-payment problems arise.

The Biden administration lacks a comprehensive approach to Latin America and the Caribbean. So far, the Build Back Better World (B3W), which claims to be a larger version of America Crece, seems to be the main attraction. At the same time, the Biden administration pledged $ 4 billion in aid to Central America, especially the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. These are some of the poorest countries in Latin America and the main source of migratory pressure on the southern border of the United States.

For its part, Taiwan is also seeking to stem the tide. In 2019, President Tsai paid a four-day visit across the Caribbean, landing in Haiti, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Even in those countries, where Taiwan had made an effort through trade and various projects, the pressure to turn around is significant, largely for economic reasons. Of the fifteen members of the Caribbean Community, also known as CARICOM, the majority recognize China rather than Taiwan.

China is also extremely sensitive to any perceived deviation from its “one China” policy, which Guyana has discovered to its discomfort. In early 2021, Guyana agreed to allow Taiwan to establish a trade office, which China immediately read as a de facto embassy. The Chinese Foreign Ministry quickly informed Guyana that it hoped not to engage in official relations with Taiwan, calling on the Caribbean country to “take serious steps to correct its mistake.” Guyana, which trades with China and needs its infrastructure investments, quickly complied. Later in 2021, the Guyanese government announced it was contracting with the China Railway Group to build and finance the Amaila Falls hydroelectric project, which could require around $ 1 billion in new loans.

Honduras will be a challenge for Taiwan and, for that matter, for the United States. Xiomara Castro, the wife of former left-wing president Manuel Zelaya (who was ousted in a coup in 2009) won the November 2021 presidential election. She is known to have close ties to the sad notorious pro-Chinese dictator of Venezuela Nicolás Maduro and has been an anti-American voice in the region in the past.

It will take more than a congratulatory tweet from President Tsai to keep Honduras as a diplomatic partner. By abandoning Taiwan and embracing China, President Castro could assert Honduran independence from the United States and unlock much-needed funds for development projects. According to a Latin American expert from the Institute of Strategic Studies of the US Army War College Evan ellis: “In economic terms, if Honduras joins Nicaragua and El Salvador in recognizing the PRC, its decision will create synergies for PRC-focused logistics projects around the Gulf of Fonseca, improving the chances of a new port in La Unión, the improved dry channel corridor from Tigre Island to the Atlantic coast of Honduras, and a connection to Nicaragua.

About Matthew Berkey

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