Understanding Chinese Engagement in Latin America

Understanding Chinese Engagement in Latin America
(Dr. R. Evan Ellis, February 24, 2023)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Dr. R. Evan Ellis is a research professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, with a focus on the region’s relationships with China and other non-Western Hemisphere actors, as well as transnational organized crime and populism in the region.

Dr. Ellis has published over 400 works, including the 2009 book China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores, the 2013 book The Strategic Dimension of Chinese Engagement with Latin America, the 2014 book China on the Ground in Latin America, and the 2018 book Transnational Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean. His most recent book is China Engages Latin America: Distorting Development and Democracy?

Dr. Ellis previously served on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P) with responsibility for Latin America and the Caribbean (WHA), as well as International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) issues.

Dr. Ellis has also been awarded the Order of Military Merit José María Córdova by the Colombian government for his scholarship on security issues in the region.



Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today we are delighted to introduce to you for the first time at a Westminster talk, Dr. R. Evan Ellis, who is a research professor of Latin American Studies in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College. His research focuses on Latin America’s relationship with China and other non-Western hemispheric actors, as well as transnational organized crime and populism in the region.

He has published more than 400 works and five books, including among these China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores, the The Strategic Dimension of Chinese Engagement with Latin America, China on the Ground in Latin America, and Transnational Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean. His most recent book is China Engages Latin America: Distorting Development and Democracy?.

Dr. Ellis previously served on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff (S/P) with responsibility for Latin America and the Caribbean (WHA), as well as International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) issues. He joins us today to help us understand Chinese engagement in Latin America. Dr. Ellis, welcome to the program.

Dr. R. Evan Ellis:

Thank you very much. It is a real pleasure to be with you today. I want to thank Robert Reilly and the team at Westminster for this opportunity to share my thoughts on understanding the Chinese activities in Latin America and the Caribbean with you and also, of course, to all of you for your interest in this topic. As an employee of the U.S. Army, I would like to emphasize that what I am going to share today is not necessarily the position of U.S. government nor my institution, but I will be happy to speak frankly about my thoughts.

I have been following this topic for about 20 years and I have seen Chinese activities and the relative amount of sophistication by Chinese companies operating in the region evolve. I have seen the strategy evolve and diversify, but when we begin to take a look at what China is doing, having worked for quite some time for the Department of Defense in various different capacities, I always am confronted with the question: is this a strategic or is it just about economics? And my response always has been that although Chinese activities in Latin America primarily seek their own economic self-interest, it is nonetheless strategic in its reach, in terms of its transformation of the region, nor in its impact on U.S. equities as an integral part of the Western Hemisphere.

The Structure of PRC Advance in Latin America

So to begin with, I have a slide on the structure of PRC advance in Latin America just to provide a bit of an overview with these three concentric circles that you see in the chart. Obviously, the amount of Chinese economic engagement over recent years has been quite impressive. It has reached about $172 billion dollars across almost 500 different projects, according to the Latin America and the Caribbean Network out of UNAM in Mexico City.

Brazil, which receives almost $70 billion dollars in Chinese investment, is one of the core areas, although you find that investment across the region. In general, you saw Chinese trade in the region expanding exponentially from the time that China was admitted into the World Trade Organization in 2001, and it was not really until about 2010 that Chinese companies began to take off on the ground, in some cases purchasing stakes in sectors like mining and petroleum and electricity transmission through, again, mergers and acquisitions, in other cases building up little by little that presence in often sophisticated ways in sectors such as telecommunications.

But all across the region, you see an expansion of the relationships between Latin American and Chinese businesspersons, politicians, and with that increasing sophistication allowing the Chinese to increasingly essentially punch at their weight in conjunction with the expanding overall amount of engagement in the region.

Securing Resources

As you can see with the three spheres, what I like to emphasize is that what the Chinese are primarily trying to do is beginning with their self-interest, and so it is on one hand trying to obtain secure access to the resources that China needs for its own people, for its industrialization, for its urbanization, and so in those areas you see a significant expansion, not only in PRC purchases but also in PRC investment in sectors like petroleum.

So although Chinese companies have been operating in the region since the late 1990s in places like Peru and Venezuela in the petroleum sector, you see that expanding now. For example, in Peru you have seven different major mining projects, making PRC based companies the major investor in the Peruvian mining sector, giving them a lot of leverage that way.

But it also goes into sectors that you do not think about so much. For example, things like China Greenheart’s presence in the interior of Guyana and Suriname in the logging sector, or in Uruguay as a purchaser of wood pulp, or in places like Peru, as well as even Panama with China Fishery group purchasing fish meal and other fish-related projects, largely to feed to the Chinese chickens that go into feeding the Chinese people.

Strategic Minerals and Strategic Markets

You also may have heard something about strategic minerals. This is another area, especially as we move into increasing pushes for electric vehicles, that, for example, the demand for lithium has brought Chinese companies to invest heavily into all of the places in Latin America where that strategic mineral is found, and so [China is] in Chile with a company called Tang Chi, as well as in Argentina with almost 10 separate projects, in Bolivia, most recently where you had a major Chinese company signing a deal with Bolivian government, and even in Mexico, relatively close to the United States in the Sonora Desert, where the Chinese company Ganfeng recently acquired control over the Bacanora lithium deposit. So again, you see it across the board.

Then we turn to the right-hand side [of the slide] to the pursuit of what I call High Value-Added/ Strategic Markets. These are things that China talked about in the Made in China 2025 strategic plan, as well as in other documents, areas like green energy, areas like construction, areas like telecommunications, where China recognizes it wants to be.

The Belt and Road Initiative in Latin America

Now, across the bottom, the reference to connectivity and digital activities: in 2013, shortly after current Chinese president Xi Jinping came to power, he put forth the Belt and Road initiative. This was derived, of course, from the China’s historical concept of the silk route, in which China saw its itself as the center of the world, the center of the universe, having these mutually beneficial trade relationships with the surrounding world. And so in many ways, globally, Belt and Road was meant to be China’s way, both diplomatically as well as in its own self-concept, of talking about how its economic engagement was meant to be mutually beneficial, or as the Chinese like to say, win-win.

Now, as you may recall, historically, Latin America had absolutely no place in the development of historical China, and so it was not actually until 2018 when Panama, which of course being very important as a global logistics and financial aid hub, and which just in 2017 had recognized the PRC, switched over to also include itself in the Belt and Road initiative. Following Panama’s inclusion in Belt and Road, you now have a total of 21 Latin American countries, including countries in the Caribbean which never had any historic relationship with this.

Now, it is also true that it is not entirely clear what being part of Belt and Road obliges you to do, either on the Chinese side or on the local side, but in many ways, you can understand it is the expression of a commitment to want to make certain priorities and sacrifices to be part of the Chinese global commerce and money machine.

Multi-Dimensional Connectivity

Having said that, however, it is also important to note that Belt and Road is not just about land transportation connectivity. So on the one hand, it is true when we look at Latin America, the Chinese use what I call multi-dimensional connectivity to advance their projects, also in getting access to resources in markets. But on the one hand, you do have Chinese activities in the transportation sector, the construction of highways, as well as bridges, so initially you saw that in places like the populist countries such as Venezuela, and in Ecuador under Rafael Correa, and Bolivia under Evo Morales, to a certain degree in Argentina under the current Peronist government.

But increasingly also, as Chinese companies have become more sophisticated, you see them engaged oftentimes using sophisticated vehicles like public-private partnerships to advance themselves in countries that are considered to have relatively stronger institutions and still have options to work in the West. So, for example, it was notable that in Colombia, Chinese companies recently won a project for the $4.5 billion dollar Bogota Metro system, or, for example, in Chile, that Chinese companies won an important construction work for a part of Highway Five, going from Talca, Chile south of Santiago up to a place called Cochin.

Chinese Port Operators

But it goes, again, beyond roads and bridges. Of course, China has operated ports in Latin America for quite some time. Some of the earliest port operators were, of course, the Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, who again, not only have the much talked about ports on the both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the Panama Canal, but also operate ports in Mexico, six different ports, as well as, for example, port operations in Freeport in the Bahamas, literally just 70 miles from the southeast coast of the United States.

But it also goes beyond that. For example, you have China Merchants Port, which has an almost 50 percent stake in the port of Kingston in Jamaica, or, for example, right now you have China Harbor, which is subbed to DP World, in Ecuador, building out a $1.2 billion dollar expansion in the port of Pasorja, and perhaps one of the most talked about recently is on the Pacific coast of South America in Peru, where a project to build out the port of Chancay into a 15 birth deep water port could become the most important port on all of the Pacific coast of South America. It also raises some questions of what U.S. head of Southcom, General Laura Richardson, talks about, Chinese dual use ports, in other words, facilities with an option for the Chinese where they could be used in wartime to strategic advantage, as well as in peacetime.


But again, moving beyond just the port sector, you also have Chinese involvement in what are called hidrovias. For example, there was a Chinese bid to control and dredge the critical river corridor in the Paraguay and Parana Rivers, which basically is critical for agricultural exports to get out from the core, from the center of South America, so Paraguay and Bolivia, as well as Argentina and the south of Brazil and Uruguay, to reach Europe and other destinations. At the same time, you have something called the hidrovia amazonica, which is in the interior of Peru, basically a Chinese project trying to make navigable the interior Amazon River systems in Peru and elsewhere.

Electricity Sector

But it goes far beyond even transportation connectivity. For example, you have in the electricity sector since about 2010, big Chinese companies like State Power Investment Corporation, or State Grid, or China Three Gorges investing literally tens of billions of dollars, first in Brazil, but increasingly also today in Chile and in Argentina, in Peru, and in other places on electricity transportation infrastructure, as well as, frankly, in electricity generation, especially in clean energy. For example, today when you look at the sector for hydroelectric generation, you find six major Chinese dam projects in Ecuador, you find three major projects in Bolivia, you find two major Chinese hydroelectric projects in Argentina, you find two even in Honduras, which does not even have relations with the PRC, just to name a few.

Solar and Photovoltaic Projects

In addition, you have some major solar or photovoltaic projects. For example, in Ceará, Brazil, as well as in the Cauchari region in the north of Argentina, and in wind. Some of the biggest wind farms in Latin America are of Chinese origin. So again, what you find across the board in electricity, both generation and transmission, and especially in green energy, is that the very connectivity that undergirds the economies of Latin America is increasingly strategically in Chinese hands.

Telecommunications: 5G, Fiber Optic Cables, and Cloud Computing

Now, in addition to that, as is also relatively widely known today, you have Chinese advances in the telecommunications sector. So we talk a lot about Huawei advancing in 5G, but what is often less known is that Huawei has been a part of the Latin American telecom infrastructure with its fiber optic cables, with its telephones, with its other infrastructure since the late 1990s, especially in Central America. And that presence in 3G and 4G makes it very, very difficult for other companies that are not Chinese, such as Samsung or Nokia, etc., to compete against Huawei today.

But in addition to that, you have other sectors, for example, like cloud computing, so Huawei also has a division, which is very aggressive, in cloud computing, having about nine different centers where it very aggressively subsidizes its services, trying to get Latin American tech startups to locate their core intellectual property and services in the Huawei cloud. Again, raising some pretty significant vulnerabilities for technology theft or other forms of espionage.

China’s Role in Surveillance Technology

And as has also been talked about in other forums, Chinese companies are also very active in surveillance technologies in the region, like it is elsewhere. So in addition to Huawei, you may have heard something about smart cities and safe cities initiatives like ECU-911 in Ecuador, or BOL-110 in Bolivia, just companies like Hikvision or Dahua and their ties to, for example, biometrics, like fingerprint scanning and other things. Those countries increasingly have a strong share of those systems in Latin America, once again consistent with the 2017 Chinese National Security Law, which obliges Chinese companies to hand over data that may be of interest to the Chinese state.

And so increasingly, the data that is potentially collected, not only by Chinese telecom companies like Huawei, not only Chinese cloud service operators, but increasingly Chinese surveillance architecture companies, increasingly making it difficult for Latin American governments to keep the, you know, personal affairs of their government operatives, their government secrets, or even the companies operating in those countries safe or secure from any Chinese who wish to acquire that information or those secrets. And so again, the core point here is to just really emphasize that this all goes beyond transportation.

What you really have in Latin America is very active engagement to secure access to resources, to get access to markets, really to grab as much of the value added out of those activities for the Chinese, and then again, a very broad presence in the various different types of connectivity that binds Latin American economies together, you know, transport, riverine transport, ports, electricity, telecommunication. And again, the Chinese are using that very aggressively in order to advance their commercial positions, to advance vertical monopolies and horizontal monopolies, etc.

Shaping the Discourse in the Political Space

Now, what you also see at the center of this diagram is the argument that also, in addition to the economic effects, the Chinese oftentimes use their economic power to shape the discourse in the political space. Now, I want to be clear. For me, having followed this for about 20 years, I do not see the Chinese working as strongly as the Soviet Union used to [work] to try to subvert democracies per se.

What the Chinese tend to do is they make it very uncomfortable for those working with them to want to speak out aggressively against what the Chinese are doing, whether in their own country, with a repression of their own people, or the jailing of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang in that part of China, or the suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong, etc. And frankly, the Chinese make it very difficult for those with knowledge to speak out against some of the risks that come from Chinese economic activities in their own countries in Latin America, so it really distorts the dialogue, and that facilitates the advance of the Chinese position.

Strategic Partnerships

Now turning to the left of this diagram, what I would also like to emphasize is that the Chinese use political engagement, both bilateral and multilateral, to advance their own position, as well as what we will talk about this in a minute, military and other security engagement. So in the bilateral space, what you find is that the Chinese have long used something that their Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls strategic partnerships.

Now again, like many Chinese terms and relationships, it is not entirely clear what being a strategic partner actually means, but in general it is a recognition of the importance the Chinese place on that partner, and it is usually associated with the establishment of a ministerial level committee. So in Venezuela, for example, this committee is called the Venezuela China High-Level Mixed Commission. In Brazil, it is called the COSBAN. And some committees are more active than others, but in general the Chinese as consummate bureaucrats basically use these bilateral relational tools. They use the committees to advance their investments and other relationships, and sometimes even political coordination in different areas.

Free Trade Agreements

In the same way, another important Chinese bilateral tool is free trade agreements, and so beginning with Chile in 2004, which is the first country in the region to sign an FTA, followed by Peru in 2008, and then there was an upgrade of the Chilean relationship. There was also a free trade agreement negotiated with Costa Rica. The Chinese tried unsuccessfully to negotiate one with Colombia. They had begun negotiating one with Panama.

Most recently, the Chinese have concluded successfully an FTA with Ecuador. [There is] a relatively pro-U.S. government there, which still is very interested in working with the Chinese. And they have begun negotiations, or at least gotten the authorization to begin negotiations, with relatively pro-U.S. center-right Uruguay, and have indicated a desire to advance FTA negotiations with Brazil, although that is still in progress.

But the bottom line is what is apparent is that you see that the Chinese are very interested historically in using FTAs as a vehicle for opening up the markets of their partner nations, while at the same time oftentimes a lot of non-tariff barriers allow the Chinese to restrict access to partner nations to many higher value-added goods in China.

Multilateral Engagements

Another important area to focus on is also multilateral engagements.

I would mention here that, for example, the China CELAC forum is probably the most important multilateral entity that the Chinese tend to use. Now, every three years, the Chinese conduct a prime minister or presidential level meeting, and with that they generally advance a three-year plan.

These three-year plans are interesting to read because while they do not indicate everything the Chinese are trying to achieve, they give you an idea of what the areas are in which the Chinese are most interested in or prioritize that engagement. So, for example, the most recent China CELAC plan, the 2022-2024 plan, emphasizes, for example, Chinese interest in expanding green energy cooperation, or as we will talk about later, Chinese space collaboration.

Now, beyond that, you do also find that within the China CELAC framework you also have the establishment of a lot of ministerial level or sub-level working groups. So, for example, there is a China CELAC Disaster Response Forum, which just held its first meeting. The idea appeared to be from that that the Chinese were looking to work with Central American and Caribbean states in the realm of disaster response to be able to advance Chinese work in sectors like, you know, Huawei providing disaster communication, or Chinese companies doing things like building sea walls in the Caribbean, or, for example, the Chinese just held their fifth China Select Defense Forum.

In that forum, you again had a significant number of Ministers of Defense, meeting with China’s Minister of Defense, Wei Fenghe, to talk about issues in the absence of the United States and Canada. So again, what you see across the multilateral space is, especially working through CELAC, the Chinese have become increasingly effective in working in a very bureaucratic way to advance concrete interest beyond just particular talking points.

Now as you also see from this diagram, I also emphasize on the lower right of the diagram that Chinese engage in military and police work as well. Now, for me, it is not so much the attractiveness of Chinese professional education schools or Chinese military equipment that gets the door open, but rather it tends to be the importance of China as a global actor or as an economic partner of the country in question that leads militaries to say, hey, we should have a relationship with this country.

However, with that open door, especially as the PRC moves toward the prospect of being a globally engaged military and with capabilities operating any place in the world, especially in the context of what it might have to do if it ever went to war with the United States over, for example, Taiwan, the ability to develop those relationships with Latin American institutions complements the ability of the PRC to operate commercially in the region in sectors like ports, that we talked about before, or sectors like telecommunications to increase the speed and effectiveness of being able to conduct global military engagements in time of war.

Two other things that I think are important to recognize also here as we look at PRC’s engagement in general: number one, when we look at engagements, do not think of just the national level. So oftentimes the PRC operates from the local level all the way up through the national and supernational levels. For example, in Brazil when the Chinese had difficulties working with the government of Jair Bolsonaro a couple of years ago, they found it very useful to work with state-level governments such as, for example, the government of Sao Paulo in Brazil, as a compliment, or, for example, during COVID the Chinese did a lot of things with sister city relationships and local kind of city to city type of diplomacy, again as a compliment and sometimes when they had difficulty in doing engagements at a broader level.

The final thing that is worth saying here is that when you look at China’s engagement overall, although the vast majority of Chinese investment and Chinese commerce takes place with the nations of South America in terms of overall volume, if you look at engagement on a per capita basis, you see evidence that for China, the Caribbean as well as Central America is a strategic space.


Well, if you look at China itself, it becomes readily apparent, so, for example, the places where China has been engaged in militarizing islands in its own South China Sea and East China Sea, where it has asserted its control over waters in what it calls the nine-dash line, and some of the activities that it conducts with its maritime militia and the Chinese Coast Guard to support those claims.

When China looks at the U.S. southeast maritime approach, it sees the same things of strategic value for the U.S. in that area. In other words, just like China’s southeast maritime approach, the Caribbean is a logistics center, it is a finance center, it is remarkably close to sensitive U.S. deployment and engagement facilities that we would use in time of conflict, etc. And so you find that the Chinese have been very aggressive, although trying not to alarm the United States in, for example, locating major investment properties. For example, the $4.2 billion dollar Baja Mar facility in the Bahamas, or, for example, a major citizenship for investment enclave, almost a quarter of the size of the entire island government of Antigua and Barbuda, something called the Yida complex, in that particular island.

So again, I think there is evidence, and it is complemented by the numbers of Caribbean police and Defense Force officials who have gone over to the PRC for time in Chinese military schools, and frankly the amount of Chinese investment that has gone into donations to Caribbean police forces. The Dominican Republic, for example, recently received some 160 different motorcycles and armored vehicles. The Guyana police forces, as well as the police forces of Trinidad and Tobago, have continuously received squad cars, motorcycles, and things like that. Again, [we are] recognizing the way in which this is a space for the PRC that they want to have strong security relationships, understanding the importance of the region.

PRC “Strategic Risks” in LAC

Now turning to the next slide, the slide of PRC strategic risks in Latin America, what I want to emphasize through my engagement in on this slide is the some of the concerns that largely commercial, but not entirely commercial, engagement has in the region, and I broke it down into what you see on this slide here. Number one: understanding how PRC’s soft power in Latin America is in some ways as great if not greater than that of the U.S.

Now, while U.S. soft power tends to be more consensual, it is based on people, you know, attending U.S. schools, or liking what they see of U.S. democracy, and then believing that that is the best way to do things to advance development or protect rights in their own countries, oftentimes the soft power that the PRC has is from the expectation of benefit from an investment by a Chinese company, the benefit of being a local partner to that Chinese company investing, access to the Chinese market. They understand that Chinese are often very vindicatory, and so if one is too critical about the Chinese, there is the concern that some of those projects could be jeopardized.

Number two is the influence in subtle ways of the PRC as what I call a counter model of non-democratic success. Now, what I mean by that is twofold. Number one, although most of Latin America and the Caribbean are not particularly enamored with the Chinese authoritarian system, what you do find is an understanding that the, you know, past four decades in which the Chinese have pulled a remarkable number of people out of poverty, albeit at great costs from a political and in a human standpoint, but looking at the role of the Chinese state is maybe something that Latin American countries may be interested in investigating more, and not just taking for granted oftentimes the U.S. argument about the primacy of a, you know, free market-led system.

In addition, for example, you find that the Chinese state-led technology model, the way in which, you know, some of the architectures in which the Chinese, to achieve security or efficiencies, have, you know, trampled over the rights and privacy of their citizens, in order to create what we might refer to as a surveillance state, but in Latin America, where there is a lot of that inefficiency and insecurity, that looking to the Chinese example of the trade-off between giving up some human rights, giving up some privacy, in order to achieve greater security.

And again, it is difficult to say that the Chinese model overall is something that the Chinese aggressively market or that it is a tremendously attractive per se, but the effect of Chinese economic progress and some other things with their technological model have impacted what used to be a largely U.S., you know, democratic, free market model of, you know, what was the best way to advance development, and protect human rights, and other things across the region.

People-to-People Relationships or People Power

Number three, one of the things that the PRC continues to do to advance its interest is what I call people-to-people relationships or people power. There are multiple pieces of this. One of those pieces is the Confucius Institute. These are often misunderstood. There are currently 44 Confucius Institutes, plus a certain number, about 20, Confucius classrooms, operating throughout the region. But generally, what they do is not so much as a center of espionage as these are essentially points of entry, so for those youth in Latin America who are interested in Chinese culture and the Chinese language, they get free, entry-level Chinese education.

If you are one of the very small number [of students] who have the talent and discipline and determination to stick it out in learning Mandarin Chinese and the Chinese character set, it is those people who become eligible for four-year scholarships by the Chinese cultural promotion organization, Hanban, to go study in places like Fudan University or Tsinghua or others.

At the end of the day, this is critical because oftentimes the very small number of people in Latin America who are hired by their governments in, you know, commerce ministry China-facing positions or in foreign ministry China-facing positions, the place where they got that education was from time in China, oftentimes paid for by the Chinese government, and so in many ways this becomes a way of co-opting some of the basically China-facing elites in Latin American governments themselves.

Now, more broadly than just those government employees, you also find that the Chinese very broadly court different people who are China-focused academics and consultants across the region. Again, having done this for about 20 years, I do not know virtually anyone who is a credible China scholar in Latin America who has not been at least once and usually multiple times on trips to the PRC.

Now, sometimes this comes in the form of a broad multi-person trip like the China Latin America Think Tank Forum. Sometimes there are individual trips in which an unnamed Chinese think tank buys the plane tickets and takes the person over for a week of consultations with China Academy of Social Sciences, and CICIR, and others, and builds the relationship.

But the effect is that overall, there is a desire, not necessarily to be compromised in intelligence terms, but the hopes of maintaining the relationship, the access to Chinese Party officials and academic officials that is so important for one’s China specialty career. There is a reluctance to be ungrateful by publicly being too critical about the Chinese or publicly working against the Chinese, and so effectively what you get is across the region the people who are most knowledgeable about China in Latin America are often reluctant to aggressively work to defend their country’s interests in ways that would be perceived as anti-PRC.

Even more broadly, also, it is important to recognize that the Chinese Communist Party has an organ called the International Liaison Department that through something called the United Front continues to maintain active diplomacy. So in places like, for example, Paraguay, which currently does not recognize the PRC, or Honduras in the same situation, [it is] working with China-friendly local elites, especially high-level persons, to try to put forth pro-China messages or trying to encourage those governments to change relations whenever the opportunity pops up.

And then, of course, even within ethnic Chinese operating in the region, you have some recent attempts to essentially use the Chinese in those countries as a bit of a fifth column, and so we have seen this more broadly than just Latin America, but in Argentina, in Colombia, in Cuba, and especially in Panama and Peru, where there are relatively large Chinese diasporas, you have the use of outreach by the Chinese Embassy in the name of providing services to local ethnic Chinese.

But in reality, [they are] encouraging those ethnic Chinese to do certain things that correspond to maintaining themselves in good stead with the Chinese government, especially recognizing that the people who are being reached out to in places like Peru also may have relatives in China itself who could be in for hard times if they are less than cooperative.

Again, so you have this multi-dimensional people power for exercising influence. In addition to that, we have what we briefly talked about before, which is Chinese digital presence. And again, I hinted this before, and so I am not going to broadly review it, but just recognize that now for more than 20 years China has a very deep presence across the region in various different parts of the telecom infrastructure, both phones and in physical connectivity, in the e-commerce sector, in the finance sector, even things like the Chinese rideshare company Didi Chuxing, which competes, actually is outcompeting Uber in Latin America, or even in financial technology like NuBank in Brazil.

You have this ubiquity of Chinese presence. There are people who would never think of locating their core intellectual processes and property in China because they understand that the Chinese security services, the MSS, are actively trying to steal those, both for the commercial benefit and strategic benefit of the Chinese state, but oftentimes do not think about that as Chinese digital penetration of places like Latin America increases, it becomes increasingly difficult for companies operating in Latin America to protect their secrets or governments to protect their privacy against those advances.

Incubator/Maintainer of Authoritarian Regimes: Reinforcing Cycle?

Now, the final part on this slide is to mention the role of China in what I call as an incubator or maintainer of authoritarian regimes in the region. Now, do not get me wrong, again, I do not see the Chinese overtly leading with attempts at subverting democracy. What actually happens and what has happened in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, in Ecuador under Rafael Correa, in Bolivia under Eva Morales, and to a certain degree in Argentina under the Peronist government is that governments which come to power for their own reasons, because people are frustrated with previous government’s performance on economic development, inequality, and things like that, those governments then get themselves into difficulties.

Their movement against the private sector leads to capital flight, their attempts to consolidate power in violating their own Constitution or laws gets them on the bad side of Western governments and counterparts, but what continually happens is that the Chinese are very good, almost operating in a manner analogous to payday lenders. As these populist governments turn down a questionable path and run themselves into problems, the Chinese are there to say, okay, we will buy your products, we will loan you money, we will structure the deal to make sure that we, the Chinese, get paid even while you may default or mistreat other investors or other countries, but we will make sure that you get paid.

In the process, it has garnered a relationship in which not only do those countries get the loans and resources that they need but also some of the products that they need. So, for example, some of the first major digital control architecture sold by China in the region were sold to these populist governments on loans. So, for example, the nationwide digital monitoring system, ECU-911 in Ecuador, was done under populist leftist Rafael Correa some years ago. In Bolivia, Bol-110 was done by populist leftist Evo Morales, again supported by the Chinese.

In Venezuela, something called the Fatherland Identity Card, which is critical to getting access to both food stuffs, the famous clap boxes of food supplies and other basics, as well as vaccines during the COVID-19 period, again, those were provided by the Chinese, again as part of helping the government of Venezuela maintain control over its own people and even security systems.

And so, some of the first major combat platforms sold to the region were sold to these leftist populist governments, and so, for example, the first fighter jets sold by China in the region were sold to Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, the K-8s. The first radars were also sold by China to Hugo Chávez, the JYL-1 radars. The first big lot of military trucks, over 700, were sold to Rafael Correa in Ecuador and his populist regime. The first military helicopters were sold to Evo Morales in Bolivia (the Harbin H-425s, otherwise known as Z9s). And Argentina, which bought a series of armored personnel carriers, almost bought the FC-1, the most advanced fighter that China would have sold to the region.

And so what we see again is there is this reciprocal relationship where it is win-win, so China gets good deals and gets to sell a lot of good equipment, and the local partner – as long as they make sure that they pay China – gets a lot of support that it needs to be able to politically do what it wants and along the way be as corrupt as it wants with its own people.

And as we look at the current situation in Latin America in which you have an unprecedented number of governments which are pursuing a statist, kind of leftist orientation, without saying that left versus right is automatically bad, recognizing that the ability of China to be there as a backstop to essentially bail out those governments, if or as they get into problems, creates a situation in which it could literally change the trajectory of politics in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Wartime: PLA Leverage, Knowledge, Access

I am now going to turn to speak briefly about the content of the next slide, taking a look at some of the concerns of the PLA presence in wartime in Latin America. Now, what I mean by this is that for me it is important to look at China through two lenses. The lens that we have previously used is understanding how in normal peacetime, engagement with China on democracy, on free discourse, on influence, in the role of the U.S. as a partner of choice impacts Latin America, which as you have seen, is in itself worrisome.

However, it is also important to recognize that if the U.S. ends up in a major war with the PRC and with its People’s Liberation Army, it is very likely that the PLA would not allow the United States to fight an away game as it did with Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. It would and probably has plans to use its economic, its political, and other leverage to take that war to all parts of the world, so responsible planners have looked at some of the things that the PLA would be likely to do in the context of a war over Taiwan.

And again, we can note that the possibility of such a conflict, although certainly nobody desires such a conflict, seems to be increasing in recent years with President Xi Jinping wanting to resolve the issue of Taiwan independence before the end of his unprecedented third term, which will be in 2027, and understanding that, you know, China has the opportunity not only to continue advancing its military superiority but incorporating the lessons learned from allied operations in Ukraine before choosing a time to act.

However, in the context of such a war, it is likely that the PRC economic leverage, its role as the biggest if not one of the biggest trade partners in the region, it would use that to make it very difficult for Latin American governments to join an anti-PRC coalition. If you think it is difficult for countries in the region now to speak out critically of Russia when Brazil and Argentina note that they sell very small quantities of grains and buy small quantities of fertilizer, it would be near impossible for most governments of Latin America to openly join an anti-China coalition in the event of such a war.

But beyond that, it is also likely that in the interest of asserting neutrality, the PRC would try to persuade governments in the region to not allow the United States to have access to their military bases or the use of airspace or ports or other facilities, which again could complicate things enormously for the United States.

Now, there are certain areas that are governed by security treaties such as, for example, access to the Panama Canal, but in general that, you know, Chinese economic presence and diplomatic activity would create some unexpected constraints for the United States in its own hemisphere. Beyond that, [it is important to] understand that it is also likely that PRC commercial operations, especially in the domains of logistics and telecommunication facilities, would present ideal locations for inserting intelligence assets in special teams if one wanted to observe U.S. operations heading towards Asia or potentially to disrupt them, again, remembering some of the proximity of Chinese operations to, again, U.S. facilities in the Caribbean, and the southeast of the United States. And frankly, also, that could extend also to the use of space facilities that have been developed in many cases by the Chinese for governments like those of Venezuela or Bolivia or, for example, the deep space radar that the Chinese currently operate in Argentina in Bajada del Agrio in Neuquén.

And frankly, if a war between the United States and the PRC ever became extended, and the People’s Liberation Army managed to occupy Taiwan, and perhaps sink a number of major U.S. surface ships, meaning that it started to look like a more protracted operation, it is not inconceivable that certain countries in Latin America, especially those more tied to or dependent on the PRC, or maybe even of questionable stability, would be willing or at least forced to allow PRC access.

Now, it is probably unlikely that the PLA and its Navy would operate very close to the U.S. in terms of ports in, for example, Cuba or Venezuela. However, you can look at certain locations such as, for example, the new port of Chancay in Peru that I mentioned before, which is both sufficiently far away from the United States to not be directly exposed to strikes and yet at the same time would present really some strategic complications for different planners.

So again, the importance of understanding the way in which in the undesirable context of wartime, that the PRC commercial presence coupled with its military relationships that it is building today create some strategic considerations for U.S. military planners and other national security professionals.

PRC-LAC Military Engagement

Now, beyond that, just to emphasize a few quick things that I already suggested before, when we talk about military engagement per se, it is important to recall that there are basically three groups of things, arm sales, training and professional military education relationships, and PLA presence. And so on this slide, PRC-LAC military engagement, in the domain of arms sales what you see again is some of the most important arm sales are through those countries which are most politically receptive, the leftist populist countries.

However, others, such as Peru, for example, which bought a multiple launch rocket system a couple years ago, and just recently its government is taking the delivery on a number of armored personnel carriers and other vehicles, in addition, oftentimes those arms exchanges involve gifts, and often gifts of military construction equipment and other dual use equipment, trucks, sometimes ambulances. And this is a way of kind of engaging in a less than threatening way.

It also often includes gifts to police forces because it is important for the Chinese to maintain contact with security forces in countries where their personnel and companies increasingly operate, as well as just from a perspective of military-to-military exchanges. As I also mentioned, virtually every country in the region that maintains diplomatic relations with the PRC sends at least some of its people into a combination of short courses, typically three to five weeks, in China’s National Defense University in Beijing, as well as in some of its more substantial courses in other institutions such as the Command and General Staff courses for the Army outside of Nanjing and for the Navy in Nanjing itself.

And then reciprocally, you find instances, although smaller in number, where the PLA sends its personnel over to Latin America to try to capture some of the best lessons to learn, or capture some of the best curricula from some of Latin America’s leading institutions. These include, as I indicated before, visiting the elite Lancero special forces course that Colombia conducts in the base in Tolemaida, which is actually a place where the U.S. does a lot of operations from as well, as well as visiting the jungle warfare school in Manaus, Brazil, again considered probably one of the best in Latin America, as well as Brazil’s peacekeeping institute, the CCOPAB.

And also, as it is indicated here, recognizing that the PLA conducts presence operations throughout the hemisphere, so you know, the PLA hospital ship Peace Arc has been three times to the region, each time in multiple stops, 2011, 2015, and 2018-2019. The PLA has done multiple port calls throughout the region on, you know, an annual basis, you know, stops by its frigates and other ships, including sometimes minor military exercises.

And you find that [China is involved] in some other areas, for example, in the construction of what is being talked about as a polar logistics base in the southern tip of Argentina in Ushuaia. Although China is not yet directly involved with the Argentine Navy in that engagement, the Chinese are directly interfacing with the governor of Ushuaia there to have at least a piece of that facility, which would be again critical to observe the traffic, which would go through these Straits of Magellan, which is one of the global strategic chokepoints that become vital, and especially vital in the event that the PLA were able to close down the Panama Canal.

PRC space activities in Latin America

As I mentioned before, moving to the next slide, PRC space activities in Latin America, what you find is that the PRC has been broadly engaged, and indeed has openly advertised, through its China CELAC plan, its interest in deepening that engagement. Since the 1990s, literally, the PRC has developed and launched satellites with Brazil under a program called CBERS, even under the regime of Jair Bolsonaro, and is very interested in getting access to the equatorial launch facility in a place called Alcantara, something that particularly now with the return of left-oriented Lula da Silva in Brazil could be much more possible than it was previously.

Also, in Venezuela, as well as in Bolivia, you see that the PRC has not only launched satellites for both of those populist leftist nations but has largely developed the space control infrastructure. In the case of Venezuela, it is their primary space control facility at a place called the Manuel Rios Aerospace Base (Bamari) in Guarico state, as well as the secondary facility in southeast Bolivar State called Luepa.

In Bolivia, [China] instrumented and developed the primary control facility for space at Amachuma and the secondary facility at La Guardia, as well as substantially trained the majority of Bolivia, like Venezuela, space personnel. And of course, [there is] lots of talk in Argentina about the facility that is operated by PLA personnel, that deep space radar facility at Neuquén, which again, you know, while there is a legitimate role in basically being able to track objects under moving Earth into space, as China does lunar missions and extra planetary missions, it also has certain risks for being able to sweep up signals and detect certain objects in space, or communicate during times of conflict, theoretically, as well.

And there are other facilities. Even Peru has a data sharing relationship between Peru Sat 1, which is its own satellite, and a satellite constellation called Gang Feng on the Chinese side, and so again, those PRC space activities potentially give China significant access to space signals and personnel in the Western Hemisphere that could theoretically become of concern during a time of conflict.

COVID-19: PRC Advance with Tensions

Now, moving to where things are going with COVID-19, the key thing for me to emphasize here is, first of all, during COVID-19 itself, although some of the major PRC-funded projects were slowed down, you saw a significant increase in leveraging goodwill across the board. Obviously, you had the advance of, you know, PRC goodwill and some medical interactions through the donations of the Chinese vaccines as well as personal protective equipment, and thermometers, and heat measuring cameras, and other things like that.

Now, although those PRC vaccines were of low efficacy, it appears that in the places where the PRC had done phase three trials, specifically Argentina, Peru, Brazil, among others, it is currently seeking to leverage that into an expanded pharmaceutical presence in those countries. In addition to that, we see that especially when the Chinese economy came out of the early part of COVID very strongly, while the rest of the world was really wrestling with this, China significantly increased its importance as a purchaser of commodities for the region: Brazilian soy as well as meats, Ecuadorian shrimp, El Salvador, and sugar, which was not even an export industry until they started negotiating and interacting with the PRC.

And although there was a bit of a hiccup with China’s zero COVID policy during the past year, China, especially as it comes out of zero COVID, its importance as a purchaser gives it significant leverage. In addition to that, one can expect that the current state of Latin American and Caribbean governments in terms of being highly indebted, struggling with controversial tax hikes, populations which are which are at risk, and especially with Latin American leftist governments who are looking for ways of alternatives to Western investments, again, the lure of the PRC as an alternative source of financing and investment presents certain opportunities for the PRC.

One of the other areas to note is that during the current period, there are particularly significant risks of the PRC accelerating its attempt to convince governments which recognize the government of Taiwan to change that relationship and recognize the PRC instead. So as this group likely knows, of the 14 states in the world that recognize Taiwan, eight of those states are found in Latin America and the Caribbean: one in South America, Paraguay, and three in Central America, Guatemala, Honduras, and in Belize, and then of course, the rest in the Caribbean, and so the prospect that President XI wants to complete the incorporation or forcible incorporation of Taiwan by 2027 when his third term ends would tend to suggest an expanded press to flip those nations, and thus farther isolate diplomatically Taiwan in conjunction with a possible future military move against it.

And some of the low-hanging fruit, for example, are the fact that this year, literally, you know, within a couple months, you have elections in Paraguay in which at least one of the major candidates, Efraín Alegre, has indicated that he, if elected, would flip to the PRC. You have Honduras, whose current president previously said that she would change relations, although she has not yet done so. You have Haiti, where most of the business leaders who are interested in replacing the current non-elected government of Ariel Henry have indicated an interest in doing business with the PRC, and so [there are] a lot of opportunities for the PRC to expand its strategic position at the expense of Taiwan.

Now, as that happens, you will also have those expanding Chinese companies and government initiatives running in into a lot of difficulties in the region because this is a Latin America post-COVID with higher rates of desperation and crime and social immobilization, especially made worse by the inflationary effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which have really hit some of the poorest people in the region hardest.

But it is also important to recognize that the near-term restraints against a PRC advance are largely going away right now, and so again, as many of you already know as followers of what is going on in China, the reversal of China’s zero COVID policy means that the Chinese companies and diplomats are much freer to engage than they were just a few months ago. It means that it will accelerate that PRC growth in China itself, which will drive more demand for the products that come from the region.

China is gradually working through the debt overhang that it had, that as we saw from the sectors like the property sector with Evergrande. And as it works through that, and as Latin Americans itself works through COVID, you will see, I think, expanded opportunities for projects to go forward, and we are already beginning to see some of those things.

We have already seen, for example, the PRC interested in trying to buy El Salvador’s debt, in trying to start FTA negotiations with El Salvador. We have already seen visits in December by Cuba’s President, Miguel Diaz Canal, and announcements that Chile’s President, Gabriel Boric, as well as Brazil’s President, Lula da Silva, and perhaps Chan Santokhi, the President of Suriname, and maybe others will all visit the PRC this year. So again, I think at a time in which we are having a lot of attention in Washington to the advance of the PRC in Latin America, this is an area where we will have a lot of talk in Washington.


And so this concludes the presentation that I have prepared on China’s advance in Latin America. The very last slide I have provides further information to reach out to me if you want to be included on the list of persons with whom I share my occasional, always free publications, as well as my WhatsApp group, or, if you want to reach out and get my articles directly from my website, revanellis.com, that information is all there here in this last slide.

So I thank you very much for your interest and I look forward to some questions and answers in the remaining time that we have, and to engage with any of you here in the group who would like to reach out after seeing this video to have a dialogue with me on these topics. Thank you very much for your time and I look forward to our continuing discussion.


Robert R. Reilly:

Evan, thank you very much for that extraordinarily comprehensive look at China’s engagement with Latin America. I understand that since the inauguration of President XI as President of China, he has made 11 trips to the Latin American area. During that same time, how many trips has the U.S. President made? Do you know?

Dr. R. Evan Ellis:

Well, I do not have the exact number, you know, certainly, on the one hand, during the early part of the Xi presidency, that was something that was noted, the amount of demonstrated interest. And it is not just President XI himself, but it is other functionaries in China.

Now, I will tell you again from my time on the Policy Planning Staff under President Trump, there is and always has been a lot of interest at the highest levels from, you know, then Secretary Mike Pompeo to, again, the Policy Planning Staff in Western Hemisphere Affairs, etc., and so there was not necessarily a lack of senior leader engagement.

But certainly, there are things that are very important to show in the U.S. interest, you know. Number one is having a confirmed U.S. ambassadors in all the countries in the region. We have had an enormous backlog of ambassadorial positions not being confirmed. We have had some degree of lack of presidential level diplomacy. This is certainly true. And the question also is the way in which we put our money where our rhetoric is, and so we have had, I think, during the current administration, some good emphasis on the importance of partnerships and in the importance of democracy, but some of the hoped for alternatives [not so much].

I talk with my Latin American colleagues they say okay, well, you know, if you tell us that China is predatory, what is it that you, the United States, are saying that we should do other than take the Chinese money? And so while I think there is a lot of goodness for us to more effectively communicate the risks of China and provide kind of database support, why our Latin American counterparts should conduct operations in transparent ways, adherence to the rule of law, and always on an open playing field, I think there is certainly more that we can do to help our partners along, and to put the resources behind that rhetoric to really help them feel that betting with us and betting on democracy and commitments to rule of law is really the way to go.

And frankly, the other piece of that is that when crises come up, I oftentimes like to quiz some of my counterparts. You say, well, you know, when you think of great U.S. strategic thinkers, you know, who do you think of? And you might mention, you know, Henry Kissinger, or Zbigniew Brzezinski, or Scowcroft, or others, but I challenge you to identify a great U.S. thinker who is best known for his work on Latin America.

And what it really goes to is that the absence of, let us call it study money and leadership attention, to Latin America, [which] means that when we get into crises, we go to pull off the shelf what we have, and that lack of strategic thinking leads us to really sometimes lack an in-depth vision of what we are doing. And so we get into things like negotiating for hostages and oil in Venezuela, as opposed to thinking about the long-term consequences of the strategic choices that we are making.

And so, definitely, I would not say it is just leadership attention, but it is the need for deep leadership thinking, backed by resources, to show the value of our partnership with the region, because at the end of the day there is no other region in the world – and you can look at the numbers, the trade numbers, the investment numbers – there is no other region in the world with which we are more as closely tied in terms of our security [and] our prosperity.

When we ignore the region, which we so often do, oftentimes it becomes not a matter of foreign policy, it becomes a matter of domestic policy. Think of the border crisis. Think of our concerns over terrorism, and so we ignore the importance of the region and its ties and its condition at our own peril, whether we like to admit it or not.

Robert R. Reilly:

A friend and associate of mine, who has lived in Latin and Central America for the past 30 years, said that what this Chinese presence, this rather comprehensive Chinese presence in Central and Latin America, has allowed these countries to do is renegotiate the terms of their historic relationship with the United States, because they now have a China card, that someone like Bukeli can say, well, China may offer me something better. And indeed, as you have already indicated, Evan, China can offer things that the United States cannot because we do not want to deal in a non-transparent way and China is more apt to say, let us be your partners in corruption, we will not raise any issues about that or about the human rights abuses in your country, where they are simply to reinforce your regime.

And this longtime friend and associate of mine also made the point [that] if you ask about these Chinese projects, are they in the interest of the country in which they are taking place, you are asking the wrong question. The question always should be is it in the interest of the elites of those countries? What is it doing for them in terms of enrichment and reinforcement? What do you think of that perspective?

Dr. R. Evan Ellis:

Well, I think you raise several very important points, and I want to kind of split them out because I think they give us insight in several different areas. Number one is the idea of what you just referred to, who does it benefit, and so one of the issues is that oftentimes when we do our messaging, we say, you know, China bad, but most elites in Latin America understand that, you know, China is a predatory actor.

Oftentimes, in my experience the calculation is: can we control the risk, knowing the Chinese are a predatory actor, so that we can secure the benefit, or that I can personally secure the benefit, even if this project will not work out, or even if it is not that important whether the project works out or not.

And so oftentimes when we engage, it is important for us to engage at multiple different levels, number one, focusing on the calculation of those elites who are making the deal, A., whether they actually have the capabilities that they will be able to achieve the benefit, both personal and country, that they hope for, as well as whether they will be able to control the risks, which oftentimes are multi-dimensional.

Also, those elites who are adversely affected by those often-dirty deals, giving them the information about what is going on to give a fair opportunity to fight that fight within the countries themselves. And frankly, also doing more to make those connections at the popular level, not so much about negotiating with China.

Oftentimes, the elites want to make it about how the U.S. is just against China, but making it about also whether once again, like so many times in the past, their elites are essentially selling out the interest of the country to take this, again, actor who is very willing to do these dirty deals and help those elites line their pockets.

And so sometimes it is really almost as much about pushing back against corruption, against an actor who is willing to go down that path, and thus raise the sense of the population of why these deals may not be as advertised, you know, in their benefit for otherwise.

The other very important part of the question is the way that having China as an alternative changes the calculus of the way that we pursue strategy. Now, we did have a certain flavor of this dilemma during the Cold War, when governments that did not want to deal with the U.S. could turn to the Soviet Union or turn to the Cubans. However, the nature of that alternative was never quite as attractive as the nature of the Chinese alternative.

But I would argue that one of the traps that it creates is that on the one hand, one of the discriminators of the United States absolutely does have to be, in my opinion, leading with our values, leading with why free markets and rule of law and a level playing field is not just in the U.S. interest but is in interest of the countries signing the deals. However, having said that, also recognizing that those alternatives that the Chinese provide makes it very difficult for us to do traditional – what I would call – diplomacy by force.

I think you see in some of the ways in which this backfired on the administration, with the Summit of the Americas or the attempt to have a democracy summit, in which it would notably not invite certain actors, or with certain attempts to impose various concepts of democracy or social programs on some of our Central American and other partners, because as you alluded to very well with Bukeli and others, some partners can say, okay, we do not have to put up with this, we will get our money from the Chinese, and have gone down that route.

And frankly, other governments, finding themselves pushed down that route in which the risk is that our own diplomatic pressure for some governments to do the right thing and clean up the corruption, if played wrong, may actually push them into new political regimes that feel that they have no choice but to work more closely with the Chinese. So I think you are absolutely right. We have to play a very sophisticated balance between actually advertising and standing up for certain values and why those values are in our partners’ interest; democracy, respect for human rights, freedom, rule of law, market principles, etc.

And yet at the same time, we do not have the freedom to hit our partners with a sledgehammer, with the arrogance, perhaps, that we did in a previous era because that will likely be counterproductive, and so it is a very tricky game for diplomats. I mean, I, having again worked under Secretary Pompeo, and having great respect for Secretary Blinken, as well as Jake Sullivan at NSC and the rest of the team, I appreciate the skill and I appreciate the way they are trying to thread that needle, but it is a much more difficult game, I think, than the one that we had 20-30 years ago.

Robert R. Reilly:

I would just quickly mention from my own experience, Evan, I worked in the area of public diplomacy in the U.S. government on and off for a number of years, and I had a conversation a year or so ago with the senior person in the Latin American division of Voice of America. And I found what I heard quite extraordinary, that we were not really in a position to compete because the Chinese are donating broadcast equipment, on top of which they donate the Spanish language programming. We are not in a position to afford that. We cannot quite compete at that level, and I am not sure those messages to which you alluded are really getting through.

Dr. R. Evan Ellis:

I completely agree, and I have seen the dilemma. I think the factor that we have to our advantage is that the Chinese are notably clumsy. I mean, they are very good with the open pocketbook, but oftentimes the way they try to buy influence is seen as somewhat brutish in the region. The Chinese, because they have not dealt with democracies, oftentimes say or do things that are deeply offensive to certain populations, and you see this problem in Africa as much as Latin America.

Having said that, however, the Chinese are, as you know, very aggressive with people-to-people diplomacy. And we do some things, I think, in a benevolent way with Fulbright scholarships and international information programs, but when the Chinese can bring en masse journalists and treat them in ways beyond what essentially U.S. ethics and law would permit, when the Chinese can take out multi-page ads in newspapers like La Tercera in Chile among others, when the Chinese can reach out and provide massive free feeds from CGTN video feeds [and] audio feeds to papers and get them dependent on that, it does make it very difficult [for us to compete].

And frankly, it is both the resources, but it is also the messages. It is the Chinese message of okay, well, we want to let you do what you want. It is win-win. That is very seductive, especially to elites who want to do what they want. And we have to do a better job in selling the Latin American peoples and other peoples on why essentially going along with the Chinese deal is actually the elites selling them down the river and not the great promised four things. It is like the old parent [telling the kid to] eat your spinach, it is good for you.

What kid wants to eat a spinach, especially when you have a competing voice at the dinner table who is offering you chocolate under the table?

And so it is a real dilemma, and we need to do a better job in communicating why we believe that we are in it for the best interest of Latin America for the long haul. And frankly, we also need to do a better job with data-supported communication, and so sponsoring the study – there is an excellent database by William and Mary called AidData, taking a look at the structure of Chinese debt trap diplomacy.

There are other good tools out there, but we really need more, not to just say China bad, but to have tools that are available from supporting talking points by U.S. State Department and other U.S. government leaders, to tools that are out there for independent use and verification for the discourse by Latin American journalists and academics, to not just say but really look at what is the Chinese record on corporate social responsibility, on environmental compliance, on labor law compliance, on successful completion of projects without major difficulties in terms of community consultations, etc., etc.

And so, we need to do a better job because if we do not fund that and if we do not think through that, that information is not going to get out there, and the much more seductive Chinese message will prevail.

Robert R. Reilly:

Evan, I want to close by reading a very striking sentence from your new book. I am quoting you, “While the new system functioning for China’s benefit might not feature overt Chinese rule, direction, or military intervention, that system, empowered by modern Chinese mechanisms of surveillance and social control, was likely to be more ruthless and repressive than Latin American historical references such as colonialism or imperialism ever were.”

Now that is an attention getter, Evan. It is a very powerful sentence, and I presume it is one of the things that the United States ought to be active in helping our Latin American friends realize.


With that I am afraid we are we are out of time, and I want to thank Dr. R. Evan Ellis, research professor of Latin American Studies in the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, for joining us today to discuss how to understand Chinese engagement in Latin America. I would like to invite our audience to go to the Westminster Institute webpage and to our YouTube channel to see our other offerings on subjects as wide as the causes of the current inflation, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Japan and China, and a number of programs on Taiwan. Thank you for joining us. I am Robert Reilly.