Latin America, China, and the United States: a hopeful triangle

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
9 February 2007

It is probable that Latin America may have the best chance in decades to establish a positive triangular relationship with two major powers. A new linkage - interconnecting China, the United States, and Latin America - has a greater potential for success than its predecessors.

The Atlantic triangle - the United States, Latin America, and Europe - did not fully develop in the 20th century: the spectre of the Monroe doctrine has been ever-present. The trilateral ties between the Soviet Union, the United States, and Latin America were tragic for the region: the logic of the cold war impeded coexistence. The US-Latin America-Japan connection was just an illusion of the 1970s that never materialised.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is professor at Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98

Also by Juan Gabriel Tokatlian in openDemocracy:

"Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal"
(30 May 2006)

"The partition temptation: from Iraq to Latin America"
(29 November 2006)

Now there is a real opportunity to construct a three-way, cooperative geopolitics between Beijing, Washington, and Latin America. For Latin America, a new phase of Chinese influence in the region has been less negative and more promising.

From the early 1950s to the late 1970s, China's presence in Latin America was limited to a marginal cultural diplomacy marked by ideological motives and based on revolutionary expectations. Beijing promoted destabilisation, anti-US slogans, and pro-Chinese (and anti-Soviet) parties. China behaved then like a sports-player who sought to change the rules of the game through aggressive means.

Today, Beijing's approach to the region involves an active economic diplomacy characterised by pragmatism, based on conciliation, seeking stability, concerned not to irritate Washington, and aimed at strengthening interstate ties. Therefore, China's expanding interest in the region appears to be moderate, not challenging, and in favor of the status quo.

In recent years, China has acted in a responsible fashion in the region. This helps understand why, for the most part, no large or middle-sized country of the region has attempted to exercise a "veto power" to halt or reverse what has become a policy of prudent and reliable engagement towards China.

The United States has no motive to fear new Chinese-Latin American contacts, for four reasons.

First, it should be emphasised that relations between Latin America, China, and the United States are characterised by an asymmetrical dynamic in which the United States operates as a global power, China as a regional power, and Latin America as a non-threatening periphery. The three parties may manage this asymmetry confidently by avoiding ambiguity, conflict or miscalculation.

Second, Latin America, China, and the United States do not constitute a strategic triangle: the bilateral ties of each pair are not closely intertwined, nor are they equally vital for all parties. The reciprocal significance of Washington-Beijing relations is, for each side, greater than their respective relationships with Latin America.

At the same time, the weight of the United States in the external and internal politics of Latin America is much more important than that of China, and Latin America is not among China's highest priorities when compared to other countries (particularly, the more developed ones) and regions (especially its closest periphery). Furthermore, the history and recent evolution of this triangle has not had notable implications for the international balance of power, nor does it appear that it will in the near future.

Third, it should be recalled that geography matters. Latin America is located in the same hemisphere as the leading contemporary superpower. Latin America has traditionally been secure for the United States. In addition, US hegemony in the hemisphere - despite the political "left turn" to its south in the 2000s - is still evident.

By analogy, if we consider that Asia today contains several great contenders (India, Japan, China, and Russia) and many medium-size powers, then it is very unlikely that China will have the capacity and the will to seriously rival the United States in the Americas.

Fourth, values matter. Latin America shares (and contributes to) the democratic values of the west. In addition, the last authoritarian wave of the 1970s gave impetus to an affirmative reassessment of the democratic regime. In that regard, China's internal political model is, in general, not very attractive for Latin America.

A benign dynamic

But the most critical factor in favour of a positive-sum relationship between China, Latin America, and the United States is in the area of trilateral security. Luckily for the three parties, Latin America is no epicentre of weapons of mass destruction and lethal transnational terrorism.

The main Chinese concerns vis-à-vis the area are Taiwan and the provision of energy. In addition to both topics, which are disquieting matters for Washington, the United States identifies other questions that impact its sensation of vulnerability resulting from China's growing ties with Latin America.

Among them are: China's latent military projection in the region, the Panama Canal, Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela. For Latin America there is a wide-ranging set of security problems that have more of a day-to-day and direct impact on its citizens: the issue of weak states, the use and abuse of illicit drugs, the expansion of organised crime, the proliferation of small arms, the degradation of the environment, and the growth of corruption.

A rigorous, unbiased analysis of the triangular security agenda shows that the most sensitive concerns for Beijing and Washington do not necessarily lead to conflict. Some issues may require a mutual accommodation (Taiwan, energy), others subtle mechanisms of consultation (Cuba and Venezuela), and still other topics are not problematic (Colombia and the Panama Canal) or real (Chinese military assertion in the region). In parallel, the most substantive worries for Latin America require political will, preventive diplomacy and cooperative treatment; an endeavour that could involve all three parties, without individual costs and with shared benefits.

To sum up, there is a huge potential for designing and implementing a non-confrontational geopolitics among Latin America, China, and the United States. This, in turn, may be no trivial contribution to world peace.

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