Central, South American Situation: Vigilance Must Be Maintained against China’s Expanding Influence

China is deepening its ties with the growing leftist governments in the Central and South American region. China’s moves to use its economic power to strengthen its influence in the region and to counter the U.S.-led international order need to be watched with vigilance.

Nicolas Maduro, the anti-U.S. leftist president of the South American nation of Venezuela, visited China and met with President Xi Jinping.

In a joint statement released after their meeting, the two countries laid out cooperation for Venezuela to be admitted to the BRICS framework of emerging economies, and joint promotion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative for a massive economic zone.

This is Maduro’s fifth visit to China since taking office in 2013. Venezuela is under U.S. economic sanctions on the grounds of the repression of opposition parties and other reasons. It is obvious that Maduro intends to seek backing from China, which is united in its opposition to U.S. influence.

Cuba, a socialist Caribbean nation that is also under U.S. sanctions, hosted this month a summit of the “G77 plus China,” a group of emerging and developing nations. The summit was attended by leaders and ministers from 116 countries, and they emphasized their unity.

In Central and South America, leftist governments have emerged one after another in major countries such as Chile, Colombia and Brazil in recent years, amid the declining influence of the United States.

The situation can be described as “a shift away from the United States” that is spreading not only among anti-U.S. leftist countries such as Cuba but also to Central and South America as a whole, and there is no doubt that China views it as an opportunity to expand its influence in the region.

Annual trade between China and Central and South America has grown to nearly $500 billion, a 40-fold increase in just over 20 years. The Central and South American region is a major supplier for China of food and natural resources such as lithium and copper that Beijing places great importance on. More than 20 of the 33 countries in the region are participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.

The Xi administration is challenging the U.S.-led international order under the slogan of creating a “multipolar world.” The inclusion of Central and South American countries is a major weapon in this effort. In August, with the support of China and other countries, Argentina was accepted as a member of BRICS.

The fact that seven of the 13 countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan are located in Central and South America could be a reason for China to place importance on the region. It is likely that China will intensify its push for those countries to cut ties with Taiwan in exchange for economic assistance.

However, there is a fundamental difference between the way people participate in politics in China, where there is no change of government through elections, and Central and South American countries, where the majority of countries maintain a democratic system.

It is often argued that the Belt and Road Initiative only benefits China and does not lead to the growth of the partner countries. If similar problems arise in Central and South America, governments in the region may be forced to rethink their policies toward China under the pressure of public opinion.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 25, 2023)