Is China stepping into America’s backyard?

One of the main foreign policy challenges for small and medium-sized countries is how to act vis-à-vis the influence of large global powers. Latin American and the Caribbean countries are no exception.

In recent decades, China's exponential growth has simultaneously resulted in Beijing's increased presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. Economic factors have facilitated this process: Beijing's high demand for commodities has driven periods of economic growth in the region and placed the Asian giant as an important trading partner and lender. With trade and financial links between the two sides steadily strengthening, it is not surprising that by March 2022, 20 countries in the region will have joined the Belt and Road Initiative

However, China has expanded and diversified its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean beyond the economic domain. The Asian giant has made major diplomatic investments in the region through its Confucius institutes, its media, and its vaccine diplomacy. Even its penetration in military and security matters, albeit more limited, has increased in recent years. A notable example is the control of a space tracking station in Neuquén, Argentina. The station is China's largest tracking base outside its own territory.

The inescapable question that arises when observing the trends over the last two decades in Sino-Latin American relations concerns the implications of Beijing's growing presence in the region. One of the many answers is that this rapprochement makes it easier for Latin American and Caribbean governments to make domestic and foreign policy decisions that favour China in detriment of the interests of the United States and its allies in a region of great strategic importance.

Now, there is a preliminary question that must be answered: in a scenario of deep and diversified relations between China and Latin America and the Caribbean, what is China's influence in the region? And, more specifically, how do Beijing's levels of influence measure up when adopting a comparative perspective?

The difficulty of measuring influence, however, has led us to adopt a strategy based on the perception of influence (which often translates into real influence) of opinion leaders in the region. That is why we surveyed more than 300 key opinion figures between May and June 2021 with the aim of understanding how China is evaluated in general, its level of influence in the region and, specifically, the role of media influence. The following notes summarise the main findings of the survey.

Main findings

The first major finding of the survey concerns the opinion leaders' views on China and other major powers. Approximately 35 per cent of respondents expressed a positive opinion of Beijing, while about 30 per cent of respondents said they had an "intermediate" opinion and a third a negative or very negative opinion. But what happens when we put the data in context? If we compare opinions about Beijing with judgments about other global powers, we find that positive attitudes towards China are among the lowest, comparable to those regarding Russia and India. 

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The picture changes, however, when we analyse the data about China's influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, which does not seem to be directly related to positive or negative opinions about Beijing. Almost 80 per cent of respondents said that this influence is high, while less than 5 per cent considered it low. According to respondents, the United States is the only major power with greater influence in the region.

The consensus associated with China's high levels of influence does not simultaneously reflect agreement on whether the influence that Beijing has in the region is positive. One person may consider the influence to be high, but argue that the effects of this influence are not positive. In this case, just over a third of opinion leaders said that China's influence is negative, while 32 per cent considered it neutral and just over 25 per cent described it as positive. Taking a comparative perspective, we conclude that opinion leaders consider China's influence to be the second most negative, just behind Russia’s influence in the region.

Thus, the first observation on China's perceived influence is clear: levels of influence, both absolute and relative, are high though the effects of that influence are relatively negative. While this finding is relevant per se, the survey sought to obtain information on the variation in influence levels according to specific policy areas. When opinion leaders were asked about Beijing's influence on Latin American culture, the economy, health and technology, almost 90% of respondents indicated that China's influence is high in the area of the economy, and less than 5% considered it high in the area of culture. The Asian giant's influence is concentrated in the economic area, followed by technology, while its penetration in the region seems to be lower in health or culture. The contrast with the United States is substantial in this case. According to opinion leaders, Washington has greater influence in each of these four areas.

China’s influence on specific areas

Regardless of the levels of influence, it is important to ask how that influence is exercised. The survey specifically sought to collect data on the impact of China's and other powers' media diplomacy in Latin America and the Caribbean. The results are clear: almost three quarters of the opinion leaders surveyed consider the Asian giant's media influence in the region, as measured by the influence of the China Global Television Network (CGTN), to be low or very low. This places Beijing's media diplomacy as the least influential in the region when compared to other global powers. Moreover, this data stands in contrast to the perception of the United States' media influence, where more than 65% of opinion leaders agree that CNN's influence in Latin America and the Caribbean is high or very high.

Summarising these findings based on a comparative approach, we found that: (1) opinion leaders have a relatively unfavourable opinion of Beijing; (2) the level of China's influence in the region is very high, while the assessment of its effects is mostly negative; (3) Beijing's influence is concentrated in the area of economy whilst cultural penetration remains very low; and (4) China's media diplomacy does not seem to be a driver of influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Conclusion: where are we heading?

The data collected in the survey indicate a broad agreement among opinion leaders on China's high level of influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, a region of great strategic importance to the United States. However, Beijing appears to be a few steps behind Washington. The degree of American influence is rated as higher and respondents see American penetration as extending to a variety of policy areas and not concentrated in the economy or technology. According to opinion leaders, China is not yet fighting a cultural or media battle.

One essential observation is that the data show us a snapshot and not a film. In other words, the survey has produced valuable information on the perceived influence of China and other powers at a particular point in time, but it does not allow us to see how the data have evolved and what the trends have been in recent years. Let us then return to the question raised in the title, namely, Is China stepping into the backyard of the United States? There is no clear answer. The information obtained through the survey suggests a high level of Chinese influence in the region, but also a greater relative influence of the United States. Yet, this is not enough to answer our question. Beijing's level of influence might show an upward trend, and Washington's a downward one. If this were the case, the answer to our question would be yes. The survey still provides a great starting point by presenting a comparative baseline that will allow us to observe how the data develop over time. It will therefore be necessary to iterate studies of this sort and compare the results obtained in different years. In this way, we will be able to make a more accurate assessment of a complex and rapidly evolving phenomenon. Moreover, future iterations will allow us to include new variables and issues of interest, such as the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative and the specific characteristics of the political and economic institutions associated with the Chinese development model.

In any event, the findings of the survey show us an interesting picture. Further research is needed to complete the film.

The questionnaire is part of a larger project coordinated by the Regional Economic and Social Research Coordinating Association (CRIES) and America University. The full survey report can be found at https://www.cries.org/?p=6770


Gino Pauselli is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science (International Relations) at the University of Pennsylvania and Guest Professor at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and the Universidad Nacional de San Martín. His main areas of research focus on the promotion of human rights, development aid and international human rights law. His works have been published in Latin American Politics and Society and Human Rights Review, among other scientific journals. He holds a degree in International Relations from the Universidad de San Andrés and a master’s degree in International Studies from the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella.

Ronán Pros holds a degree in International Studies from Torcuato Di Tella University. He currently works in the statistics and demography section of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Denmark. He is also an assistant professor of Statistics at Torcuato Di Tella University.



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