MIAMI -- China’s hunger for Latin American resources and Hugo Chávez’s cancer have combined to trigger some notable -- and unexpected -- geopolitical shifts.
No doubt China hoped to continue increasing its influence in Latin America at the expense of the United States. Chávez also viewed the United States as a declining power, and China as an emerging one, sure that America’s relative weakness would serve his efforts to become the dominant force in the region.
Chávez’s illness, however, has prompted his ideological allies – who are grouped together in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) – to hedge their bets by improving their respective relationships with Washington.
At the same time, the United States has begun promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which promises closer trade and security ties between countries on both sides of the Pacific. The TPP would also serve as a counterbalance to Chinese influence in Latin America.
Prior to his illness, the Venezuelan president used his oil wealth to support left-wing governments in several South American countries. Those governments, in turn, were happy to follow Chávez’s lead in challenging U.S. influence in the region and encouraging greater influence for China.
Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela itself all expelled their U.S. ambassadors. By refusing to sign a new contract with the U.S. military, Ecuador sent the Americans packing from its Manta Air Base. Along with Bolivia, it also gave the boot to U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents. To varying degrees, all three countries followed policies that were adverse to U.S. private investment in the region.
But when Chávez announced that he was suffering from cancer, his allies concluded that should he die, they would be likely to lose the economic assistance he’s long been providing. “Chavismo” isn’t likely to survive without Chávez – which is why it’s hardly surprising that Bolivia and Ecuador decided once again to exchange ambassadors with the United States. Ecuador’s ambassador to the United States will be a former cabinet minister who studied at Harvard and is anxious to attract American investments.
Even if rumors about Chávez’s deteriorating health turn out to be exaggerated, it’s unlikely the presidents of the ALBA nations will follow their Venezuelan counterpart with the same enthusiasm as before. All of this means that there’s an opportunity now for those countries to develop much more constructive relationships with the United States.
A regional realignment?
Washington has also recovered some of its lost influence in Latin America thanks to the free trade agreements it finally approved with Colombia and Panama. Coupled with those deals is a similar accord with South Korea, which represents an important step toward President Barack Obama’s goal of expanding U.S. commercial interests in the Asia-Pacific region. After the South Korea deal was approved, Obama set off on an eight-day trip around the eastern Pacific Rim to send the message that the United States is a Pacific power keen to strengthen its regional relations.
Washington’s interest vis-à-vis the Pacific is about both economics and security: with an eye on China, the United States wants to mark its territory. With China flexing its military muscle, Washington wants to reassure the Asian nations that it isn’t planning to reduce its military presence in the Pacific.
Washington’s ulterior motive is to eventually join the incipient TPP, which so far includes just a handful of small Pacific Rim nations: Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore. The United States, Australia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Peru are negotiating to become members. Japan, Mexico and Canada have also announced interest in participating in the trade partnership.
U.S. efforts to increase trade between countries on both sides of the Pacific will mean new economic growth opportunities for the countries of Latin America, assuming of course they take measures at home to be more competitive. Washington’s maneuvering also looks to level the economic playing field not only between the United States and China, but also between Latin America and China – for the benefit of the Americas as a whole.
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Photo - White House