US mute on China in unveiling ‘ambitious’ Latin America plans at Summit of the Americas

Washington is pointedly avoiding citing China by name as it works to unveil a positive agenda for Latin America, senior White House officials said Wednesday, even as it has tried to sidestep controversy over the guest list at a regional summit this week.

President Joe Biden is focused on strengthening democracy, increasing multilateral bank activity, reducing migration and bolstering the middle class at the Summit of the Americas this week in Los Angeles – despite inordinate attention on Washington’s decision not to invite several leftist-leaning countries – but will largely avoid comparing it publicly to China’s Belt and Road Initiative or outsize trading presence, they added.

“The best antidote to China’s inroads in the region is to ensure that we are fording our own affirmative vision for the region economically,” a US official said on background. “That’s why it’s so important that we do lay down a really ambitious, regionally comprehensive, updated vision for the kind of economic partnership we want.”

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The US officials said fewer US initiatives in recent years had created a vacuum that allowed China to make inroads and pursue projects not necessarily in the best interest of Latin American and Caribbean nations.

“We do ourselves both an economic service as well as advancing our geostrategic gains by just putting out an affirmative vision,” she added.

The Biden administration has struggled to promote those initiatives given the kerfuffle over its decision to leave Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua off the guest list. That decision saw the presidents of Brazil and Argentina threaten to skip the US-hosted meeting, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador eventually pulling out.

US officials said the economic plank of its Americas Partnership initiative differs somewhat from the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) unveiled in Tokyo last month, given that the US already has free trade agreements with 11 countries that it can build on.

The administration intends to spend the next several months recruiting various Western Hemisphere nations to enter negotiations toward an eventual economic agreement aimed at better coordinating supply chains, digital frameworks and clean energy, and tackling trade barriers not covered under earlier agreements, a senior administration official said.

Given strong US opposition to trade agreements – which industry and labour groups often blame for the shift of manufacturing jobs overseas – any agreement is not expected to require approval by Congress and will not trade US market access for economic reforms in partner countries, US officials said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told business leaders that significant impediments remain before investors feel comfortable in the region, citing everything from regulatory frameworks to corruption.

“There’s a lot of capital out there, but it’s not going to be deployed if the environment in which you want to deploy it is simply too risky and too complicated,” Blinken said.

In keeping with the IPEF, however, the Americas Partnership will have a menu of “pillars” that countries can opt to join after they negotiate and show they can meet the agreement’s standards, an official said, toward a hoped-for ministerial meeting in the fall.

One pillar seeks to make supply chains more resilient and reduce dependency on “certain countries”, an official said, without mentioning China by name. Another aims to reform and potentially increase capital at the Inter-American Development Bank and encourage other multilateral lending organizations to expand their presence in the region, she added, with an eye on boosting social capital and reducing climate change.

On other fronts, the proposed agreement would seek to strengthen ties between citizens and their governments through innovation, infrastructure, technology, healthcare, taxes, women’s rights and corruption to make life “better and fairer”.

The fourth and fifth pillars aspire to tackle sustainable farming, clean energy, regulatory issues, customs practices, labour, the environment and food and energy inflation caused by Russia‘s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, among others, officials said.

With this week’s raft of initiatives – including others involving women, cities, refugees and private sector investment – the administration hopes to make up for lost time and counter the growing sway of Beijing, which it views as a “strategic competitor”.

China’s presence in America’s “backyard” has grown significantly over the past two decades as Washington focused more attention on the Asia-Pacific region. China’s state-owned companies are major players in the hemisphere’s infrastructure, energy and space sectors, even surpassing the US as South America’s largest trading partner.

China took the opportunity this week to needle Washington over the politically sensitive issue of migration and refugees along the US southern border with Mexico.

“The serious issue of migrants and refugees faced by the US is a boomerang of its own hegemonic and bullying practice,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday in Beijing.

“At the ninth Summit of the Americas, it should officially respond to Latin American countries’ legitimate concerns on the issue of migrants, and present practical solutions.”

Analysts said Washington’s regional initiatives this week constitute a start but that there is significant ground to make up.

“Biden’s IPEF initiative in Asia as in Latin America appears … too little too late,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor at Baptist University in Hong Kong. “Moreover, instead of being inclusive, the US has been inclined to exclude countries it does not like, triggering Mexico‘s boycott of the meeting.”

“This will help China reach out to the excluded nations and altogether appear more inclusive.”

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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