Much has been reported about Washington’s pivot into Asia and the Pacific. What’s not as well-known is Beijing’s pivot into the Americas. Like a global chess match, Beijing is probing the Western Hemisphere and sending a message that it, too, can cultivate trade and military ties outside its neighborhood. Given that the United States has been the predominant power in this hemisphere since the 1800s, China’s message warrants a response.
Before recapping some of China’s moves in Latin America, it’s important to note that there are pluses and minuses to Beijing’s increased interest and investment in this hemisphere. Investment from China, Europe, Britain and the United States is fueling a much-needed development boom in South America. That’s a plus. But China’s riches come with strings, and that’s what raises concerns.
Driven by a thirst for oil and other resources, China is aggressively and strategically building its economic portfolio in the Western Hemisphere. A study in Joint Forces Quarterly (JFQ) offers the highlights:
Brazil is a prime example of how Beijing is using its checkbook to gain access to energy resources. As The Washington Times reports, China’s state-run oil and banking giants have inked technology-transfer, chemical, energy and real-estate deals with Brazil. Plus, China came to the rescue of Brazil’s main oil company when it sought financing for its massive drilling plans, pouring $10 billion into the project.
“They are buying loyalty,” warns a former British diplomat to the region. Indeed, U.S. diplomatic cables reveal concerns that Beijing’s largesse is making the Bahamas, to cite just one example, “indebted to Chinese interests” and establishing “a relationship of patronage…less than 190 miles from the United States.”
That brings us to the security dimensions of the China challenge. We know from our own history that trade and economic ties often lead to security and defense ties. And that’s exactly what’s happening as China lays down roots in the Americas:
Officials with U.S. Southern Command reported in 2006 that Beijing had “approached every country in our area of responsibility” and provided military exchanges, aid or training to Ecuador, Jamaica, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile and Venezuela.
In short, China’s moves represent a challenge to U.S. primacy in the region—a challenge that must be answered. But how?
A good place to start would be to dust off the Monroe Doctrine. The origin of the threats may change—France and Spain in the 1800s, Imperial Germany in the early 1900s, the Soviet Union during the Cold War—but the Monroe Doctrine remains an important guide for U.S. foreign policy.
“Monroe 2.0” should make it clear to Beijing that while the United States welcomes China’s efforts to conduct trade in the Americas, the American people look unfavorably upon the sale of Chinese arms in this hemisphere and would not countenance the basing of Chinese military personnel or export of China’s authoritarian-capitalism model into this hemisphere. To borrow the polite but candid language of the original Monroe Doctrine, a Chinese outpost in the Americas could only be seen as an “unfriendly” action “endangering our peace and happiness.”
Likewise, Washington needs to send the right message—and in the right way—to the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Specifically, Washington should emphasize that just as they are not U.S. colonies or European colonies, they should not allow themselves to become Chinese colonies. Already, there is a backlash in Brazil and Argentina against China buying up land, and in the Bahamas against the influx of Chinese workers. Washington should leverage this backlash.
U.S. actions should amplify U.S. pronouncements:
Monroe 2.0 would avoid conflict by helping Beijing understand how serious the United States is about the Americas. What was true in the 19th and 20th centuries must remain true in the 21st: There is room for only one great power in the Western Hemisphere.