China is deepening its involvement in Latin America and the Caribbean, as Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Ma Zhaoxu made clear last year at a summit between China and Latin American and Caribbean states.
The summit resulted in a joint action plan that will not only tighten economic cooperation between China and Latin America and the Caribbean in various fields such as agriculture, food, science, technology, industry, infrastructure, aviation, energy and tourism, but also deepen China's influence in the region through cooperation in education, research and sports. The action plan directly mentions, for instance, that Latin American and Caribbean members of the forum "support China in hosting the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games" that took place in March.
In the next two years, between 2022 and 2024, China, according to its joint plan with Latin American and Caribbean states, and as part of its quest to become the world's global tech leader, envisages providing states in the region with 5,000 government scholarships and 3,000 training places in education and research in the Chinese homeland.
This cooperation also extends to space, as well as nuclear energy and nuclear technology. The plan also aims to strengthen cooperation in 5G telecommunications equipment and artificial intelligence.
Confucius Institutes -- tools of Chinese influence around the world, "are overseen with heavy involvement" by the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute -- are also a central part of the joint plan, which states as one of its ambitions the opening of more Confucius Institutes and classrooms in universities and schools in Latin America.
Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean currently have about 43 Confucius Institutes, leaving much potential for growth. According to Parsifal D'Sola, director of the Andrés Bello Foundation's China Latin American Research Center, the increase in Confucius centers in Latin America will focus on academic research that yields more to China's concerns and less on topics that are sensitive to China.
"While there is a greater participation of Latin American professors in research financed by some Chinese government entities, we will see less criticism within the universities, which is something that favors China in its international image," D'Sola said in April.
Significantly, the action plan also mentions building networks of sister cities and sister provinces between Latin American/Caribbean countries and China. According to "China's Influence & American Interests," a 2018 report by the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States, published by the Hoover Institution Press:
"China pursues sister-city relationships under an organization called the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries... that aims to strengthen the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and increase China's influence overseas. Under the administration of Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, the association has been revitalized as China seeks to groom local business, political, and media leaders in countries around the world..."
In the same vein, the China-Latin American action plan will seek to "Strengthen exchanges between entities involved in people-to-people friendship, and continue holding the China-LAC [Latin America and the Caribbean] People's Friendship Forum." Such seemingly benign-sounding activities are, however, a less-benign means of covert influence. According to Professor Anne-Marie Brady:
"In foreign affairs, the Xi administration has revived traditional CCP [Chinese Communist Party] policies of utilizing people-to-people... relations in order to coopt foreigners to support and promote China's foreign policy goals".
One of the ways that they do that, according to Brady, is to "[u]se sister city relations to expand China's economic agenda separate to a given nation's foreign policy. The CCP front organization, the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries is in charge of this activity."
In July, the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center explicitly warned against the covert influence operations of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries in the US. It warned that Chinese influence operations "can be deceptive and coercive, with seemingly benign business opportunities or people-to-people exchanges sometimes masking PRC political agendas."
China already wields considerable influence in Latin America, as described here, but the new action plan promises to take that influence to new levels; it shows the extent to which China is aiming to "take over" Latin America and the Caribbean.
"The Chinese don't say, 'We want to take over Latin America,'" as U.S. Army War College Professor Evan Ellis said, "but they clearly set out a multidimensional engagement strategy, which, if successful, would significantly expand their leverage and produce enormous intelligence concerns for the United States."
This year, Ellis predicts, "will likely also feature continued diplomatic, economic, political, and security penetration of the region by the PRC [People's Republic of China]".
In addition, Latin America is seeing a rise in the elections of leftist governments, with Brazil being the latest country to vote in a socialist leader, further boosting China's influence in the region. In December, Nicaragua broke off its relations with Taiwan. According to Ellis, there has not been a Latin America "as dominated by a combination of leftists and anti-U.S. populist leaders," as now.
"Across the region, leftist governments will be particularly willing to work with the Chinese on government-to-government contracts," Ellis said, and possibly "with respect to security collaboration as well as technology collaboration."
China's trade with Latin America reached $450 billion last year, up from $180 billion in 2010. The World Economic Forum has estimated that trade with the region will exceed $700 billion by 2035, more than double what it was in 2000.
Crucially, 21 out of the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China's gigantic global infrastructure project launched in 2013 to build an economic and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe, Africa and beyond. The BRI seeks dramatically to enhance China's global influence from East Asia to Europe by making countries worldwide increasingly dependent on China.
Latin America, as one headline succinctly noted recently, is fast "becoming China's backyard."
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.