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Trump’s Rhetoric and the Sino-Latin American Relationship

Before the turn of the 21st century, Chinese relations with Latin America were limited. However, since the 2008 financial crisis, China has pumped large amounts of aid and inter-governmental loans into Latin America. China has also become active in several regional organizations, including the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLAC) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Various explanations have been posited for these actions, such as a need for raw materials, efforts to gain political recognition over Taiwan, challenge U.S. influence in the region, and even to spy on the United States. Regardless of the rationale, Chinese activity in Latin America has increased drastically, from just $26.1 billion in the 7 years before the 2008-Financial Crisis to $386.3 billion between 2008 and 2014.

Image courtesy of the President of the Republic of Mexico (c) 2015

Two recent events have helped solidify China’s position in the Americas: 1) Panama shifting diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China and 2) a burgeoning relationship between China and Mexico. Panama’s shift in recognition follows an ongoing trend of several Latin American countries shifting their diplomatic recognition in the past decade. However, up until now, China has avoided seeking stronger relationships with Latin American countries that are traditional allies of the United States, particularly Mexico, Panama, and Colombia. This opens an important question; why is China making such bold moves now?

While there may be a complex rationale behind China’s move, one factor cannot be ignored; the election of President Donald Trump. Shortly after the U.S. election, Chinese Prime Minister Xi Jinping planned a visit to Latin America, offering foreign aid and trade deals to several countries in the region. As I have previously noted on Charged Affairs, Chinese lending and aid to Latin America are likely to increase if the United States cuts foreign aid to the region. Although Congress has not yet passed a full year budget for fiscal year 2018, the Trump administration’s FY2018 budget request highlights his desire to cut foreign aid. While this may partially explain China’s increased presence in the region, there is another factor that may explain China’s bold steps towards areas that are closer to the United States; President Trump’s bombastic rhetoric.

Over the course of Donald Trump’s campaign, and since taking office, Mr. Trump has repeatedly bashed Mexico and made demands of them that many find absurd. These moves have alienated the Mexican populace, as well as Mexican officials who want to work closely with the United States. As the President of the United States insults Mexico, China has offered to be Mexico’s friend. As Mr. Trump threatens to tear apart the North American Free Trade Agreement, China seeks to improve trade with Mexico. As Mr. Trump demands that Mexico pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, China provides funding for Mexican infrastructure projects. Regardless of the actual policies that the Trump administration chooses to pursue, the rhetoric that Mr. Trump himself has used towards Mexico has opened the door for China to become even more enmeshed in the region. If China is seeking to weaken U.S influence in the Americas, Mr. Trump may actually be their strongest weapon.

While the President may see harsh words as part of effective negotiating, his rhetoric has longer-term implications for U.S.-Latin American relations. When only two entities are involved in a transaction, as in many of Mr. Trump’s business dealings, the choice of using strong rhetoric may make strategic sense. However, international affairs is more complicated and President Trump’s words have led other leaders to question their relationship with the United States. Words matter and if President Trump is to improve the position of the United States, it is critical that he watches what he says (and tweets!).


Adam Ratzlaff

Adam Ratzlaff is a PhD student in International Relations at Florida International University. His research interests include U.S.-Latin American foreign policy, Sino-Latin American foreign policy, Pan-American cooperation, the defense of democracy in the Americas, and economic and social development in Latin America. Ratzlaff has previously conducted political and economic analysis for several groups including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. He holds a MA in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies (University of Denver), as well as a BA from Tulane University where he triple majored in International Relations, Economics, and Latin American Studies. Feel free to connect with Adam either via LinkedIn or on Twitter @adam_ratzlaff.
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