‘As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson concluded his tour of Latin American countries this week, his comments on China – condemning Beijing’s supposedly ‘predatory’ and ‘imperial’ advance in the Western Hemisphere – reveal a growing anxiety about the country’s role in the region. And yet Tillerson’s tour did little to allay concerns that the Trump administration is ill-equipped to address the challenges created by China’s political and economic moves in Latin America.
‘Now in his second year in office, Trump’s approach to foreign affairs remains something of a question mark, and no more so than in Latin America, which hasn’t received a great deal of attention from Trump beyond the occasional misguided tweet or thinly-veiled threat (notwithstanding the high-profile immigration issue). The Trump administration’s extensive National Security Strategy, released in December, mentions Latin America only once, in the context of trading partnerships that ‘create more predictable business environments that benefit American companies’.
‘However, the vagaries of Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda are slowly coming into focus. As it pertains to Latin America, the administration’s approach mixes malign neglect with coercive posturing. The Colombian peace process, for example, has barely registered in the administration’s diplomatic efforts, with Tillerson all but ignoring the relatively tenuous agreement between the government and leftist guerrillas in his February 6 comments in Bogota (which focused mainly on drug trafficking and the crisis in neighbouring Venezuela).
‘In contrast to its disengagement on the Colombian peace process, the Trump administration is actively advocating an additional round of sanctions to pressure the Venezuelan government of Nicolas Maduro. Speaking in Argentina, Tillerson floated the idea of restricting imports of Venezuelan crude oil and exports of refined petroleum products to Venezuela. Such a proposal would not be well-received in the region, which is acutely aware of the history of heavy-handed US interventionism.
‘The Trump administration’s approach may widen the diplomatic opening for China, which continues to push new trade and investment deals. In January, Beijing held its second ministerial meeting with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Chile, where officials announced that the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, China’s flagship development programme, would be extended to Latin America. The region is slated to receive approximately $250 billion in total Chinese investment over the next decade. Given these figures, Tillerson’s disapproving comments are unlikely to alter the calculus for Beijing or its regional partners.’