In January 2016, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) abandoned an 8-year truce in its war with the Republic of China (ROC) over diplomatic recognition around the world and subsequently moved to aggressively woo traditional Taipei allies. This paper centers on the PRC’s recent successful push into Latin America, and particularly in Central America—historically a primary area of influence for the United States. Through a concerted effort—and often in exchange for promises of mega investments and financial aid—the PRC increasingly receives a warm welcome across the Latin American continent.
This paper analyzes recent decisions by several countries in the Western Hemisphere in recognizing PRC and offers an in-depth assessment of El Salvador’s recent decision to break historic ties to Taiwan and embrace Beijing—a move that presents a significant strategic challenge to U.S. regional interests. The PRC’s activities in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and El Salvador represent a new aggressive policy in the hemisphere aimed directly at supporting the most anti-U.S. governments in the region. This position only furthers the PRC’s strategic interest while marginalizing the United States wherever possible. This paper concludes by arguing that the PRC drive into Latin America since 2016 represents a broader strategic threat to U.S. national security interests. It then offers three recommendations.
Realign U.S. aid and support toward real allies. Even if countries maintain commercial relations with the PRC, the United States should focus on countries that work closely with the United States on a strategic level. These allies include Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Panama. While each country presents challenges, they are not insurmountable obstacles to partnering with the United States.
At the same time, the United State should consider significantly limiting aid to countries that embrace the PRC with the intent of displacing the United States and undermining the rule of law and democratic institutions. These countries now include El Salvador, Suriname, and likely Nicaragua. A realignment would both allow more funding for true allies and avoiding putting money into strategic competitors or opening significant avenues for PRC intelligence and counter-intelligence activities aimed against the United States in these host countries.
Carry out more high-level and cultural engagement in the region. The United States carries out far fewer high-level official visits than the PRC (or Russia). Moreover, the message of senior U.S. officials, when they do visit, is often centered on the demand to stop migration, which does not address the region’s felt needs. This relative absence of senior level visits, student exchanges, and other forms of engagement has allowed the PRC to set the terms of debate and engagement in the region, to the detriment of U.S. interests. To rebalance these elements of soft power is imperative. The largest asset that the United States has is the good will of populations in the region, including millions of individuals from Latin American countries who have visited or reside in the United States. In contrast, there is a lack of familiarity Chinese language, culture, and history and limited Latin American travel to the PRC.
Reevaluate current U.S. engagement ties for potential compromise. Recognize that most U.S. efforts in counternarcotics, vetted units, and intelligence-sharing will be severely compromised by growing Latin America ties to the PRC, especially in Bolivarian states such as El Salvador and Nicaragua. These programs should be reevaluated immediately, and, if U.S. engagement continues, the counter-intelligence possibilities should be fully understood.