The ascendancy of leftist governments in countries like Peru, Chile and Honduras – and eventually Brazil and Colombia in 2022 or 2023 – can facilitate China’s increased geopolitical and economic influence in Latin America, a process that is already underway. The conclusion is a recent study by the British International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
The report lists the world’s strategic challenges in 2022. He also cites the tension between Russia and the West in Eastern Europe, the nuclear issue in Iran and the internal political crisis in the United States.
Researcher Irene Mia, from IISS, identified that a turning point geopolitics and economics from Latin America towards China is already underway. Beijing’s influence is based on trade and investment and financing of large infrastructure projects in several countries – including Brazil.
Its main international economic project to increase influence – and cause economic dependence, according to Western analysts – is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as China’s New Silk Wheel, started in 2007.
In it, Beijing makes substantial investments in infrastructure, telecommunications and digital technology projects in about 45 countries, most of them in Africa and the Middle East. But the Silk Road has already reached Latin America (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname). The total investment of the project worldwide exceeds US$ 200 billion (R$ 1.1 trillion).
Last year, the United States created a project to face the New Silk Road called Built Back Better World. It should be disseminated at the 9th Summit of the Americas, which will try to bring together the continent’s leaders in June, in California.
The American initiative is one of the aspects of the trade war waged between Washington and Beijing since 2018, when there were mutual taxation of imported products and American sanctions. This tension escalated to the military area, with an effort by the government of dictator Xi Jinping to overcome the American military hegemony in the coming decades.
However, the US B3W must bring not only resources to the continent , but a political burden that presupposes a commitment to the values of American liberal democracy. Among them are human rights, democracy, the fight against climate change, health security, digital technology and gender equality – in addition to the ideology of limited state intervention in the lives of citizens.
The Chinese initiative, in turn, it is loaded with propaganda according to which Beijing does not interfere in the politics or ideology of its trading partners. In fact, China has not imposed the communist regime by weapons or diplomatic pressure on any country (unlike the United States in relation to elections, for example). China also does not openly criticize its trading partners’ systems of government (the country has no formal allies, except for North Korea).
But this is not to say that Chinese influence is purely economic, no ideological charge. Beijing expects support, at least diplomatically, on key issues such as the “One China” policy. This means understanding that Taiwan is a dissident Chinese province and not an autonomous and democratic territory. In other words, in order to negotiate with Beijing, it is necessary not to recognize Taipei – which has caused the island’s political isolation.
The most recent example is Nicaragua. After receiving US sanctions, leftist Daniel Ortega broke off ties with Taiwan in December last year, adhering to the “One China” policy. Shortly thereafter, he became eligible to receive funds from the New Silk Road.
Another prerequisite for maintaining a good diplomatic relationship with the Xi Jinping government is turning a blind eye to accusations of abuses of human rights against the Uighur (Muslim) minority in the Xinjiang region. In that area, Uighurs are sent to labor camps that Beijing calls “re-education” centers.
These are the most evident Chinese agendas. But Western analysts worry about deeper ideological issues. Elizabeth Economy, a researcher at Stanford University, wrote in her essay “Xi Jinping’s New World Order” that Chinese investments in developing countries are accompanied by behind-the-scenes attempts to spread values. Among them are the increase in state powers, the decrease in individual freedoms and the restriction of open markets.
In Tanzania, for example, the government started to adopt practices of the Chinese model of internet control. and social media. Political parties in Ethiopia, Sudan and South Africa participated in training on the structure of the Chinese Communist Party and its propaganda system. In South Africa, Chinese news channels began to compete with local media.
At the end of last year, left-wing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador held the rotating presidency of the Community of Latino States. -Americans and the Caribbean (Celac), created by former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez.
Obrador signed the China-Celac Joint Action Plan in his last days in office. If implemented by Argentina, also governed by the left and which now holds the presidency of CELAC, the plan should bring Latin American countries together in high-level meetings to share the exchange of government experiences.
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And Brazilian parties have participated in this articulation. Between November and December, politicians from the PT, PSB, PDT and PC do B participated in the 3rd Forum between the Communist Party of China and the Political Parties of Latin America and the Caribbean. Virtually, some of these politicians gave speeches praising the achievements of the Chinese people under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
The battle for 5G
Brazil has already been cited by many international analysts as a “pendulum” country – sometimes more linked to American interests, sometimes inclined to negotiate with rival Western nations.
One of the main dispute agendas between Washington and Beijing in Brazil is the billionaire 5G internet market. The Americans pushed for the Chinese company Huawei to be excluded from the auction last year. The White House offered that Brazil be elevated to a global ally of NATO (Western military alliance), a condition in which it could have access to advanced American weapons and sell its defense products more easily.
O The main American argument against China was the insecurity of Huawei’s equipment. They could be used for espionage purposes, according to the United States. That’s because Chinese law allows the central government to request strategic information from private companies in the country. Beijing has always denied that this possibility is put into practice.
But Brazil initially adopted an intermediate solution. It established that the auction would only be aimed at telephone operators, which excluded Huawei. On the other hand, it did not prevent the company from supplying equipment to the operators that won the concessions.
The Brazilian government also determined that a 5G network be created exclusively for government agencies, which cannot use Chinese equipment. .
That was the diplomatic solution. But according to a source from Planalto, the government of Jair Bolsonaro knows that it cannot exclude China from the deployment of 5G in Brazil. This is because much of the country’s 4G internet structure is already based on Huawei equipment. Banning the company would mean starting everything from scratch, generating higher costs and delays.
But this does not mean that the Brazilian government is minimizing the possibility of the network being used for intelligence actions, data monitoring mass or Beijing stealing of secrets and technologies. On the contrary, this is a major concern of Brazilian intelligence agencies.
Chinese investments in Brazil
China invested in Brazil US$ 66 billion (R$ 814 billion) in 176 projects between 2007 and 2020, according to the report of the Brazil-China Business Council.
Of this amount, 60% was allocated to the electricity sector, % to oil and gas, 7% for the extraction of metallic minerals, 6% in the manufacturing industry, 5% for infrastructure works and 3% for agribusiness, with the remainder for other segments.
billion (R$ 334 billion) were allocated to 64 projects that did not materialize.
Silk Road Problems
Officially, however, Brazil is not part of the New Silk Road.
But Chinese investments don’t just have a positive side. Analysts raised some aspects of the BRI that could be perceived as problematic. The first concerns the model of the operation, as everything comes from China: financing, workers and materials. There are no financial risk assessment or transparency and bidding processes. Impacts on the environment and on local communities are usually not counted.
Until then, a segment of the population may not care. But a study by 2018 published in the journal Foreign Affairs showed that 334 of 1.814 Silk Road projects carried out between 2016 and 2018 had corporate governance (management) problems.
This gave rise to corruption, debt levels higher than those recommended by the market, environmental pollution and labor abuses.
This type of problems, associated with a scenario of governments accused of corrupt practices in Latin America, can generate an explosive mixture, according to analysts.
Outside of the BRI initiative, Chinese expansion in Latin America Latin America still has an aspect that worries analysts and Brazilian intelligence sectors: the use of private areas purchased by China for military activities.
The most classic example is the installation of a scientific base in the Argentine province of Neuquén in 2016. It is part of China’s National Moon and Mars Exploration Program, but analysts say in theory it could be used to control military satellites. The concern is that the host country, in theory, does not know everything that happens inside the facility. Argentina denies it.
And which side will Brazil take in this dispute between the USA and China for influence in Latin America?
In addition to investments, the commercial partnership between Brazil and China cannot be ignored. To give you an idea, in 2021, China contributed US$ 40 billion (R$ 218 billion) of the US$ 61, 2 billion (R$ 334 billion) of the Brazilian trade balance surplus. It is currently Brazil’s main trading partner, according to data from Icomex, a foreign trade bulletin linked to the Fundação Getúlio Vargas.
If on the one hand this considerably helps Brazilian development, it also makes the country susceptible to diplomatic pressure and the imposition of trade barriers for political reasons. Chinese diplomacy has gained a worldwide reputation for being predatory by playing politically with several countries, using as a weapon the export of much-needed medical products and vaccines during the height of the pandemic.
In the relationship with the United States, Brazil imports more than exports and the deficit in 2021 was US$ 8.3 billion (R$ 270 billion). The government still aims to achieve NATO global ally status through diplomacy. But an eventual rapprochement with Russia on a presidential trip scheduled for the beginning of this year could make the process more difficult.
For now, the Bolsonaro government’s position is not to adopt an automatic alignment with the US. , nor get closer to China. The idea is to adopt a pragmatic position that benefits Brazil’s interests, according to a source from the Planalto. . But if a left-wing government takes over the presidency next year, this situation could change.