Even before Donald Trump began blasting the “bad hombres” to his south, he was not known for his love of Latin America.
“I didn’t particularly want to go,” he grumbled of a whistlestop 1989 trip to Rio de Janeiro during which he declined to spend even a single night at his destination. “But there are some wealthy people in Brazil.”
So Rex Tillerson’s awkward attempt to reconquer the region’s affections this week – and his warnings about China’s “predatory” advance – have puzzled many Latin American officials, irritated Beijing and set a new stage for the global jostle between the world’s top two economies.
“The US is doing everything it can to alienate the region … dissing you, criticising you, calling you a shithole,” complained Jorge Guajardo, Mexico’s former ambassador to China.
“Xi Jinping can just ignore the region and he’s already winning.”
Few in Washington believe Xi, a mojito-loving authoritarian considered China’s most powerful ruler since Mao, is doing the former, though.
Trump has yet to set foot in Latin America or the Caribbean and there are doubts over whether he will participate in April’s Summit of the Americas, in Peru.
Xi, on the other hand, has visited three times since 2012, hailing a “vibrant and promising region” that – with China’s help – was “embracing another golden period of development”.
Compliments have been matched with billions of dollars of investments. China, as Tillerson noted last week, is now the largest trading partner of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru.
“There is a sense that China is increasingly active in Latin America … and that we are seeing bigger announcements, bigger numbers, bigger deals, bigger projects,” says Margaret Myers, director of the Inter-American Dialogue’s China and Latin America program. “All of these things are bound to catch the attention of those up north.”
Even so, Tillerson’s unusually blunt denunciation of China’s “imperial” menace has left experts wondering if other factors are at play.
Harold Trinkunas, a Stanford University scholar who has studied the political implications of Beijing’s Latin American footprint, suspects Trump’s own hawkishness towards China is one of those factors.
In last year’s national security strategy, the US president attacked Chinese efforts “to pull the region into its orbit through state-led investments and loans”. In January’s State of the Union address, Trump labelled Beijing a “rival” endangering America’s interests, economy and values.
“If you go back even two years, there certainly were a large number of people inside the state department and the defense department … raising concerns about China’s role in Latin America,” says Trinkunas. “They finally maybe have somebody who’s willing to give voice to those opinions.”
Niggling US discomfort about China’s regional push has also been exacerbated by at least two specific developments.
One is Xi’s signature foreign policy venture, the Belt and Road initiative, a $900bn infrastructure blitz critics suspect is designed largely to cement China’s position as “a mighty force” on the world stage.
During a recent summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Chile, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, stopped short of formally including his hosts in the scheme. But Myers, who anticipates a spree of China-backed projects in the region over the coming years anyway, believes it has nevertheless become “a source of considerable concern and anxiety” for Washington.
Panama’s decision last year to cut ties with Taiwan and embrace Beijing has also raised eyebrows. In a recent essay attacking China’s “disturbing” advance, Evan Ellis, a US Army War College Latin America specialist, warned Panama’s pivot could give Beijing “significant leverage over the Panamanian government, further eroding once significant US influence over Central America’s principal commercial hub and strategic chokepoint”.
Eyeing Chinese investments, the Dominican Republic and perhaps other regional countries are expected to follow suit. “That is only going to fan the flames,” Myers predicts.
Beijing has condemned Tillerson’s portrayal of China as a malign presence. “Such blunt lecturing shows that the Trump White House still intends to keep Latin America strictly within its sphere of influence,” China’s official news wire, Xinhua, fumed. “It is like putting up a big sign that says: ‘Stay away! I own it.’”
“It’s America that Latin America doesn’t need, not China,” says Guo Cunhai, head of Beijing’s Community for Latin America and Chinese Studies. “It’s just a pity Latin America lives so close to the devil.”
Many western analysts are skeptical of China’s ability or desire to politically exploit what Tillerson called its economic “foothold” in Latin America. “Of course the more the Chinese invest, the more they will want to influence things in the region to protect their investments. But I see this as largely motivated by economic rather than strategic interests,” says Trinkunas.
Matt Ferchen, a scholar from the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy who studies China’s role in the developing world, says the threat China’s “illiberal influence” poses to Latin America’s democracies is also exaggerated. “I don’t see anyone in the region … saying: ‘Oh, we’d really like some of that authoritarian one-party thing you’ve got!’”
What Latin American countries would like, say experts, is for the Trump administration to re-engage with, rather than lecture, the region. “This idea that the US gets to tell Latin America what is in its best interests or not – that’s just idiotic. No one is going to listen,” says Ferchen.
Trinkunas believes many regional leaders may welcome increased rivalry between Washington and Beijing: “For Latin America, the best situation to be in is to be able to play off China against the United States. Competition … is to their advantage.”
Trump’s insults, though, needed to stop.
“He just doesn’t understand why he should dedicate more than a second of thought to Latin America – he couldn’t care less,” says Guajardo, the former Mexican ambassador. “Now the Chinese see fertile territory.”