.
W

hen the government of authoritarian President Daniel Ortega announced its intent to expand Nicaragua’s military relationship with Russia, it highlighted a lingering problem at the heart of the U.S. relationship with its closest neighbors. One of three nations excluded from the recent Summit of the Americas, Nicaragua took the opportunity to make a statement. But the more significant aspect of the agreement is that the Russian military now has a clear path to a long-term presence in Central America. This marks just the latest chapter in external actors filling the void that U.S. foreign policy in the region has created—particularly Russia and China. With the United States preoccupied with wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and its inward “America First” turn, the old adage proves true: nature hates a vacuum.

Russia’s Growing Latin America Influence

Russia has preserved ties to Ortega and others for decades. Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains a zero-sum perspective regarding his country’s activities in the Western Hemisphere. He believes that the United States, its NATO allies, and the European Union are purposefully disrupting what he perceives as Russia’s sphere of influence, necessitating a Russian response. Russian threats of military deployments in Latin America are not new. Since 2008, Russia has occasionally flown its Tupolev TU-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela for short “missions.” Likewise, earlier this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov threatened to place military assets in Venezuela and Cuba if the United States continued to support Ukraine. However, the reality is that both Russia and China already leverage military intelligence and equipment in these countries—and arm non-state actors—to prop up their regimes. This latest development in Nicaragua stands as a clear challenge to U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.

Countries in Latin America have displayed a wide range of attitudes toward Russia. Most recently, the behavior from presidents in Argentina and Brazil reveal a striking willingness to sidle up to dictators like Putin. Argentine President Alberto Fernández and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro both made splashy trips to Russia in the weeks prior to the Ukrainian conflict despite Washington urging both to reconsider with a war looming. Although the Trump administration named Brazil as a major non-NATO ally in 2019, Bolsonaro ignored the Biden administration’s request.

Some countries have also refused to use regional organizations to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In March, the Organization of American States (OAS) approved a resolution condemning the invasion, with particular emphasis on the humanitarian crisis the conflict created. In April, the OAS voted to suspend Russia’s permanent observer status, but eight countries abstained. Some were to be expected, such as El Salvador, but three stand out—Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, the three largest democracies in the region. Meanwhile, the United States still has not confirmed its ambassador to the OAS—a further reflection of the United States’ failure to prioritize regional issues.

Russia is not the only extra-Hemispheric power making inroads in the Americas. As China has grown in prominence on the global stage, it has made important advances in Latin America and the Caribbean. Early in the 21st century, this was marked largely by growing trade with the region. Today, China is the top trading partner with Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay and an important trading partner for many more. China also became a major provider of foreign aid and government-sponsored investment activity by the end of the first decade of the century. In 2010, Chinese policy banks lent more money to the region than the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and U.S. Export-Import Bank combined. Although some have suggested that many of these efforts were signs of “Checkbook Diplomacy” to gain support in the region vis-à-vis Taiwan, these linkages have built important bridges in the region. While loans to the region have declined in recent years, Chinese engagement—both economically and politically—remains robust.

China’s Deepening Engagement

Chinese engagement in the region has also deepened—showing both a heightened level of commitment on the part of China and a clear vision of how it will engage with Latin America and the Caribbean. One example of this vision is the development of a semi-regular China forum with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) that has occurred since its announcement in 2014. At the December 2021 China-CELAC Forum, China made commitments to expand educational linkages with the region as well as expand technological cooperation. Both the expansion of 5G networks controlled by Chinese telecommunications firms as well as of Confucius Institutes and educational partnerships have concerned U.S. policy makers. Furthermore, China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its “vaccine diplomacy” boosted perceptions of China in the region.  

The U.S.’ Flawed Response

The rise of Russian and Chinese involvement in the Western Hemisphere have sounded alarm bells among the U.S. foreign policy establishment—unfortunately, these concerns are often misguided. First, U.S. policymakers have often raised concerns about extra-hemispheric powers in the region without recognizing that when the United States is not as active a participant in the region, Latin American and Caribbean leaders will look to other actors to fill the void.

The Trump administration did little to address concerns about rising Russian influence in the region despite Russian support for the so-called “Troika of Tyranny” that the Trump administration admonished, albeit largely for domestic political gain. The Trump administration did seek to counter the rise of China in the region, but largely through finger-wagging and warning of the dangers of Chinese engagement. One important step that was taken to counter Chinese influence however was the establishment of the Development Finance Corporation to provide a counterweight to Chinese lending.

The recent Summit of the Americas, could have provided the Biden administration with an opportunity to reignite relations with the region. However, much of this opportunity was squandered and drowned out by controversy. The administration did take the opportunity to launch a number of important initiatives, but many critics have highlighted that they have lacked details and seemed ad hoc rather than strategic. While Juan Gonzalez, Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere with the National Security Council, recently stated that the best approach to addressing China’s presence in the Americas was to have an “affirmative strategy” in the region rather than focusing on China, this approach has yet to be fully realized.

U.S. economic and political leadership in the hemisphere continues to wane. Regional integration is already difficult. Add to that how the United States and Latin America are on different pages regarding Russia and China and avenues for cooperation become even more narrow. If the United States is concerned about growing Russian and Chinese activity in the Americas, a more proactive approach is critical. This will require that the United States not only pay attention to the region when there is a crisis, but seek to be more strategic rather than reactionary.

About
Adam Ratzlaff
:
Adam Ratzlaff is special series editor and a specialist in Latin American foreign and public affairs.
About
Jeffery A. Tobin
:
Jeffery A. Tobin is a political science doctoral student in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He was a journalist for more than 20 years, working most recently for CBS Interactive as managing editor.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

China and Russia Fill a U.S.-Shaped Void in Latin America

Photo by Isabela Kronemberger via Unsplash.

July 26, 2022

Russia and China have increased their presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. If the United States wants to counter this advance, it needs to have a more proactive policy towards the region, write Jeffery Tobin and Adam Ratzlaff.

W

hen the government of authoritarian President Daniel Ortega announced its intent to expand Nicaragua’s military relationship with Russia, it highlighted a lingering problem at the heart of the U.S. relationship with its closest neighbors. One of three nations excluded from the recent Summit of the Americas, Nicaragua took the opportunity to make a statement. But the more significant aspect of the agreement is that the Russian military now has a clear path to a long-term presence in Central America. This marks just the latest chapter in external actors filling the void that U.S. foreign policy in the region has created—particularly Russia and China. With the United States preoccupied with wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and its inward “America First” turn, the old adage proves true: nature hates a vacuum.

Russia’s Growing Latin America Influence

Russia has preserved ties to Ortega and others for decades. Russian President Vladimir Putin maintains a zero-sum perspective regarding his country’s activities in the Western Hemisphere. He believes that the United States, its NATO allies, and the European Union are purposefully disrupting what he perceives as Russia’s sphere of influence, necessitating a Russian response. Russian threats of military deployments in Latin America are not new. Since 2008, Russia has occasionally flown its Tupolev TU-160 strategic bombers to Venezuela for short “missions.” Likewise, earlier this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov threatened to place military assets in Venezuela and Cuba if the United States continued to support Ukraine. However, the reality is that both Russia and China already leverage military intelligence and equipment in these countries—and arm non-state actors—to prop up their regimes. This latest development in Nicaragua stands as a clear challenge to U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.

Countries in Latin America have displayed a wide range of attitudes toward Russia. Most recently, the behavior from presidents in Argentina and Brazil reveal a striking willingness to sidle up to dictators like Putin. Argentine President Alberto Fernández and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro both made splashy trips to Russia in the weeks prior to the Ukrainian conflict despite Washington urging both to reconsider with a war looming. Although the Trump administration named Brazil as a major non-NATO ally in 2019, Bolsonaro ignored the Biden administration’s request.

Some countries have also refused to use regional organizations to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In March, the Organization of American States (OAS) approved a resolution condemning the invasion, with particular emphasis on the humanitarian crisis the conflict created. In April, the OAS voted to suspend Russia’s permanent observer status, but eight countries abstained. Some were to be expected, such as El Salvador, but three stand out—Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, the three largest democracies in the region. Meanwhile, the United States still has not confirmed its ambassador to the OAS—a further reflection of the United States’ failure to prioritize regional issues.

Russia is not the only extra-Hemispheric power making inroads in the Americas. As China has grown in prominence on the global stage, it has made important advances in Latin America and the Caribbean. Early in the 21st century, this was marked largely by growing trade with the region. Today, China is the top trading partner with Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay and an important trading partner for many more. China also became a major provider of foreign aid and government-sponsored investment activity by the end of the first decade of the century. In 2010, Chinese policy banks lent more money to the region than the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and U.S. Export-Import Bank combined. Although some have suggested that many of these efforts were signs of “Checkbook Diplomacy” to gain support in the region vis-à-vis Taiwan, these linkages have built important bridges in the region. While loans to the region have declined in recent years, Chinese engagement—both economically and politically—remains robust.

China’s Deepening Engagement

Chinese engagement in the region has also deepened—showing both a heightened level of commitment on the part of China and a clear vision of how it will engage with Latin America and the Caribbean. One example of this vision is the development of a semi-regular China forum with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) that has occurred since its announcement in 2014. At the December 2021 China-CELAC Forum, China made commitments to expand educational linkages with the region as well as expand technological cooperation. Both the expansion of 5G networks controlled by Chinese telecommunications firms as well as of Confucius Institutes and educational partnerships have concerned U.S. policy makers. Furthermore, China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its “vaccine diplomacy” boosted perceptions of China in the region.  

The U.S.’ Flawed Response

The rise of Russian and Chinese involvement in the Western Hemisphere have sounded alarm bells among the U.S. foreign policy establishment—unfortunately, these concerns are often misguided. First, U.S. policymakers have often raised concerns about extra-hemispheric powers in the region without recognizing that when the United States is not as active a participant in the region, Latin American and Caribbean leaders will look to other actors to fill the void.

The Trump administration did little to address concerns about rising Russian influence in the region despite Russian support for the so-called “Troika of Tyranny” that the Trump administration admonished, albeit largely for domestic political gain. The Trump administration did seek to counter the rise of China in the region, but largely through finger-wagging and warning of the dangers of Chinese engagement. One important step that was taken to counter Chinese influence however was the establishment of the Development Finance Corporation to provide a counterweight to Chinese lending.

The recent Summit of the Americas, could have provided the Biden administration with an opportunity to reignite relations with the region. However, much of this opportunity was squandered and drowned out by controversy. The administration did take the opportunity to launch a number of important initiatives, but many critics have highlighted that they have lacked details and seemed ad hoc rather than strategic. While Juan Gonzalez, Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere with the National Security Council, recently stated that the best approach to addressing China’s presence in the Americas was to have an “affirmative strategy” in the region rather than focusing on China, this approach has yet to be fully realized.

U.S. economic and political leadership in the hemisphere continues to wane. Regional integration is already difficult. Add to that how the United States and Latin America are on different pages regarding Russia and China and avenues for cooperation become even more narrow. If the United States is concerned about growing Russian and Chinese activity in the Americas, a more proactive approach is critical. This will require that the United States not only pay attention to the region when there is a crisis, but seek to be more strategic rather than reactionary.

About
Adam Ratzlaff
:
Adam Ratzlaff is special series editor and a specialist in Latin American foreign and public affairs.
About
Jeffery A. Tobin
:
Jeffery A. Tobin is a political science doctoral student in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He was a journalist for more than 20 years, working most recently for CBS Interactive as managing editor.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.