China was already winning over the US's neighbors. Trump's COVID-19 response just makes Beijing's job easier

  • No region has been hit harder by the coronavirus than Latin America, whose residents have gotten little aid from the US.
  • While President Donald Trump has inveighed against China about the pandemic, Beijing has offered help to the region, reflecting its rising influence among the US's neighbors, writes Michael Paarlberg, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

There is no moment in recent history that better encapsulates the declining relevance of the US to the world than the coronavirus pandemic, and no region that better illustrates it than Latin America.

The region has become the epicenter of the pandemic, surpassing a quarter-million deaths as of August 20. Those who have contracted it include Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader, Bolivia's unelected de facto leader, Jeanine Añez, along with half her cabinet, and top officials in Venezuela.

The top three countries in Covid-related deaths are all in the Western Hemisphere: the US, Brazil, and Mexico. They account for 43% of global deaths. On a per capita basis, nine of the top 10 countries in Covid deaths are in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The losses will be measured in lives and in jobs. The International Monetary Fund projects Latin America's economy will shrink faster than any other region. With the majority of its workforce in the informal sector, without social protections or the ability to work remotely, between 30 million and 50 million people are expected to fall into poverty.

A country offering to help

If Latin America is looking for a savior, it isn't the US. President Donald Trump's response has been to suspend shipments of personal protective equipment to other countries while branding it "the China virus."

In contrast, China's foreign minister last month announced $1 billion in loans to Latin American countries to help pay for a vaccine Beijing says it will develop. China has also donated hundreds of thousands of masks, tens of thousands of testing kits, as well as ventilators and other medical devices to the region.

Latin American leaders are less concerned with what you call the illness than with who is offering solutions. Brazil is a case in point. Bolsonaro, its far-right president, is a Trump ally who, like Trump, ran on an anti-China platform, blamed China for the virus' spread, and promoted the unproven malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a remedy.

But now facing the second worst outbreak in the world after the US, and having contracted the virus himself, Bolsonaro has reconciled with Beijing. The about-face was almost certainly under pressure from Brazil's powerful agribusinesses, which know China is a customer they cannot afford to alienate.

Brazil exports twice as much to China as it does to the US. Exports to an exploding Chinese consumer market fed a decade-long boom in Brazil and helped it and other Latin American countries weather the post-2008 global recession.

China has since donated 150,000 masks and hazmat suits to Brazil. Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso summed up the attitude in Latin America's largest country and economy: "China is presenting itself as a country that wants to help, and the US as a country that wants to save itself."

To be sure, China is not motivated by pure altruism. Brazilian soybeans and its other top export, oil, are crucial for China's food and energy security. And the aid is part of a broader, ongoing outreach effort by China in Latin America at a time when the US has been in steady retreat.

Much of this is in the form of loans: China is now the top lender to the region, totaling $137 billion since 2005. Most of these deals have far fewer strings attached than those offered by the US and other international financial institutions.

While China has curtailed direct state financing lately — largely due to the slow-motion collapse of its top borrower, Venezuela — trade and investment remain strong. Latin America's trade with China has risen from $17 billion to over $315 billion since 2002. Today, China is the top trade partner to Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay, and number two for many others in the region.

China's gains can also be measured politically through diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

The US, which officially recognizes Beijing, encourages allies to maintain relations with Taipei. Until recently, Latin America had the most countries that did so. During Trump's tenure, three of them — the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama — have recognized Beijing in exchange for multibillion-dollar infrastructure financing packages.

The US tried to block El Salvador's shift with threats but failed. Trump had suspended aid programs to the country, while news broadcasts there showed Salvadoran children in the US torn from their parents and placed in cages.

Time to offer a better deal

Media analysts have been slow to see the trend and still ask who will be the top foreign power in Latin America. At this point, it is not even a question. China eclipsed the US a long time ago.

While this spells the end of the US's short-lived status as sole post-Cold War superpower, given the ugly history of US dominance in the region, it is reasonable for Latin America to ask whether this is such a bad thing.

But a new Cold War is in no one's interest, given the coups and murderous dictatorships the last one brought to region. A more likely and no less ominous outcome is the entrenchment of a new generation of autocrats who have looked to China as both a partner and a model.

It is no secret that China wants to sell its brand of authoritarian state capitalism as an alternative to Western liberalism, offering expertise on everything from attracting investments to suppressing dissent.

In Latin America, China's largesse benefits strongman leaders across the political spectrum. China has been the most critical lifeline to Venezuela's embattled President Nicolas Maduro, insulating his government from Trump's "maximum pressure," making US sanctions ineffectual for anything other than maximizing the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

Today, the US is in no position to dictate terms to a region where it is neither seriously engaged nor the only game in town — something everyone seems to realize except the US. Should it wish to have some clout in the future, it needs to offer a better deal.

Declaring China the new enemy will simply force countries to choose sides, and most already have. As global pandemics and climate change become the defining threats to all countries, there will be little appetite for great-power rivalries. Nor is disengagement an option. Cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests is the only way forward, because Latin American nations won't tolerate a return of 20th-century imperialism, and they don't have to.

Michael Paarlberg is assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Follow him on Twitter @MPaarlberg

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This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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