Various Latin American countries demonstrate a willingness to participate with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This willingness is concerning to the United States, as the BRI increases the ability of the Chinese government to project power onto the American continents. This article analyzes the options available to the United States and Western countries to counter the BRI in Latin America.
Announced in 2013 by President Xi Jinping and adopted into the Chinese Constitution in 2017, the Belt and Road Initiative is China’s landmark attempt at global infrastructure development and investment in long-term foreign policy strategy. This foreign policy focus is evidenced in the name of the BRI, as the Belt and Road initiative references the Silk Road that made Chinese silk a luxury commodity in the Middle Ages, which brought the Chinese international fame and wealth. Though the Chinese government founded the modern-day BRI to develop trade infrastructure in the Far East, the program has expanded to include various developing countries throughout Europe, Africa, and Latin America.
Alarmingly, nineteen countries in Latin America have demonstrated a willingness to work with China and have agreed to the Belt and Road initiative funding, including Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. These and other Latin American countries have already enjoyed bilateral relations with China. The disreputable terms in the BRI agreements may leave these countries at a disadvantage in the future. Additionally, China seeks to develop a deeper bilateral relationship with Colombia, though Colombia has not agreed to a BRI agreement.
The United States and other Western countries are concerned about the BRI because it provides competition for the development market. They question the sustainability and lending practices of the CCP and the consequences of lending large sums of money to poverty-stricken nations, and they worry that the BRI is how the Chinese government will project anti-Western Chinese political and economic power across the globe.
In a more local sense, the BRI expansion in Latin America concerns the United States because of the potential power competition between China and the US. Already the US has warned its political allies in Latin America that engagement with China will be harmful in the long term for Latin American nations. This course of action is likely to prove somewhat effective in the future. A major potential drawback is that simply warning countries of the future economic disaster from engaging with China may not be enough to keep them from engaging in the short-term.
The following proposed courses of action involve the United States working to counter Chinese political advances in the American hemisphere by providing a competitive option to current Chinese lending options and political relationships. As China is attempting to build relationships in the American Hemisphere, moving to undercut the Chinese in this area by building relationships in the American Hemisphere can stonewall Chinese attempts at power projection and increase marginal trade benefits from Latin American countries. Engagement, not estrangement, is more likely to serve the United States well with Latin American countries.
As China continues to deepen its bilateral relations with struggling Latin American nations, so, too, could the United States. By engaging with Latin American countries more directly, the United States could counter China’s moves to build positive bilateral relations in Latin America by offering Latin American states different bilateral relations with less predatory lending practices.
The United States, Japan, and Australia have begun work on the Blue Dot Network in 2019, an initiative that assesses and certifies infrastructure projects are up to accountability standards, environmental regulations, and economically sound. It is designed to promote solid international development spending and investment. As of June of 2021, the G7 has committed to expanding upon the framework of the Blue Dot Network by launching the Build Back Better World initiative. It is too early to determine if the B3W will be a successful international countermeasure to the BRI. However, it seems likely that most multilateral counters to the BRI will involve the B3W or the Blue Dot Network. Both the Blue Dot Network and B3W are globally focused countermeasures, and while this will prove helpful for coordinating multilateral development cooperation, countries in the American continents will likely have to step in to engage poorer neighbors in meaningful ways.
In a local multilateral context, the Organization of American States has several developmental programs, all of which are coordinated through the Executive Secretariat for Integral Development (SEDI). These programs are as diverse as the BRI, without predatory loan practices. For a local multilateral response, the US could invest in the various OAS programs to provide Latin American countries with a more viable alternative to BRI loans.
Unilateral action will perhaps be the easiest, though it will certainly be the most expensive option available to the United States as a direct counter against China’s BRI agreements. Direct investment through USAID in Latin America would be a relatively quick way to begin investment in low-income Latin-American countries. Given the reputation the US has earned through prior intervention in Latin American politics, such a move would need to be executed well to avoid old stigmas about US interference.