Latin America’s relations with the rising powers of China and Russia form part of broader global challenge to US domination in world affairs.
After a century during which Latin America’s relations with the rest of the world were heavily conditioned by the United States, today Latin America’s relations with other parts of the world are flourishing. The shift can be seen in trade flows and in Latin American participation in new international organisations. It is further highlighted by tours of Latin America by Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and reciprocal visits to China and Russia by Latin American leaders. The trend is towards the creation of an anti-hegemonic group of countries with different ideologies and cultures, but a common interest in sovereignty, stability, and economic development.
In recent years both Russia and China have been subjected to forms of intervention and hostility familiar to generations of Latin Americans. Without entering into a detailed analysis of US policy to Russia and China, it is worth pointing out that despite US protestations of friendship, Russia has seen Nato expanded up to its borders, witnessed a largely US-installed regime revive and glorify wartime fascist ideology and unleash a brutal war against ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has also protested as the US has built a ‘missile defence shield’ across Eastern Europe in violation of previous agreements and directly threatening Russian security. And since March 2014 Russia has been subjected to economic sanctions by the US and allies such as the EU. For its part, since 2011 China has watched the Pentagon’s menacing ‘pivot’ to China, and now has US troops to its west in Afghanistan, to its south in Australia and the Philippines, in Japan and in South Korea. There will be plenty of people in China who suspect that the US is connected to recent unrest in Hong Kong.
Like Latin America, Russia has tasted the bitter fruits of neoliberal shock therapy, and in lieu of an ideological motive for recent hostility, it is clear to them that what the US cannot accept is a sovereign Russia with an independent foreign policy such as it has displayed over Syria and Iran. Meanwhile, China spent much of its modern existence under US sanctions, and actually remains under some US and EU sanctions, imposed after Tiananmen Square in 1989. Both countries have also seen existing international institutions overwhelmingly fail to contain US aggression against sovereign countries despite their opposition from within the UN Security Council and both fear the chaos that US intervention has brought to the Middle East. Therefore, despite not actively seeking out US hostility, both Russia and China have ample motives to challenge the existing, largely US-created, world order.
The Latin American connection
This existing neoliberal global state of affairs is also being challenged from Latin America, so far mainly on a political and ideological level. The election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and that of other progressive or anti-hegemonic governments in Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay has led to the construction, with Cuban help, of the first meaningful Latin American international institutions, and of the ALBA trading system which seeks to replace profit as the driving mechanism of international trade. These governments are also pushing forward ambitious programs for economic diversification and regional integration.
The Latin American integrationist and anti-hegemonic initiatives came into being at a favourable time, partly due to the US’ preoccupation with wars in the Middle East and interventions in the post-Soviet space, and partly because China and Russia began to move onto the world stage, reaching out to each other and to other important Third World countries, leading to the creation of the BRICS, the G20, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as well as creating networks in other international institutions to oppose interventionism and unilateralism on the world stage.
Alongside this international activity, Russia and China have gradually transformed the nature of their bilateral relationship, creating what one analyst has called the Russia-China ‘double helix’ in which Russian and Chinese interests neatly complement each other: China is on the cusp of becoming the world’s largest economy, while Russia has huge energy reserves, the world’s most advanced space industry, a modern military-technological complex, and the military power to prevent overt military aggression. Facing rejection from Europe, Russia is also increasingly identifying itself as a Eurasian country. These circumstances have led both countries to cooperate on Chinese plans for Eurasia, and it appears, increasingly on Latin America too. The basis for these plans is the need for China to move away from dependence on exports to the US and Europe and therefore to create new developed markets, in particular in Eurasia and Latin America.
That these development plans are being warmly received in Latin America is quite obvious. Latin American governments seek alternative markets for their raw materials, help with diversifying their economies, and investment; while both Russia and China are looking to expand their trade with the region, are interested in its resources, and are willing to help with technology transfers and investment. Chinese trade with the region is rocketing, with a 1200 per cent increase from 2000-2009, and is set to overtake EU-Latin America trade in 2016.
Agreements made in 2014 will see China provide the region with $250 billion dollars over coming years. This is almost double the amount the US gave to Western Europe under the Marshall Plan, and unlike US money, Chinese cash does not come with political strings attached. Chinese investments are targeting infrastructure and economic diversification, with the $50 billion Nicaragua canal project leading the charge, and many other agreements on economic cooperation signed with the anti-hegemonic governments – including Cuba, which will receive a new container port in Santiago de Cuba.
Meanwhile, Russia is providing training for some military and police forces, has forgiven Cuba’s $32 billion debt, and signed deals on atomic energy, oil and mineral exploration, launched high tech satellites, and most obviously, provided advanced weapons systems, including those that guarantee security from US ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaigns. These effectively provide security for China’s vast investments so that there will be no repetition of the billions China lost during Nato’s overthrow of the Qaddafi government in Libya, or the 2014 US-backed coup in Ukraine.
With Russia, China and Latin America’s anti-hegemonic governments all facing similar threats and hostility from the US and the US-dominated international order, they increasingly need to support each other diplomatically and politically. After a century of overt and covert interventions and economic bullying, most Latin American countries need little encouragement in seeing US interventionism as a problem. All are concerned about destabilisation from US-backed ‘colour revolutions’ such as those experienced in Venezuela and Ukraine in 2014, and countering them is another powerful motive for cooperation.
Fighting back with free trade
The US has not stayed idle in the face of these developments. Its actions in Ukraine, sanctions, and the sabotage of oil prices are at least partly an effort to destabilise Russia so as to break apart its alliance with China and thereby prevent China and Russia from challenging the status quo any further. The US response towards Latin American integration has been to seek to divide the region by inviting allied governments into 21st century ‘unequal treaties’ in the form of free trade agreements. These are neoliberal in inspiration and therefore incompatible with the anti-hegemonic ‘Bolivarian’ project, and are often enthusiastically backed by local elites.
Mexico was the first nation to succumb, in 1994, and today is on the cusp of becoming a failed state. Colombia, Chile and Peru all now have free trade agreements with the US, and in 2012 joined Mexico in the Pacific Alliance, a free trade project led by right-wing oligarchic governments. Another layer of neoliberal agreement is contained in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated with the participation of Chile, Mexico and Peru. Colombia has also expressed interest in joining. The bilateral agreements with the US, just like the European Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), are actually only partly trade agreements, and contain far-reaching clauses that will effectively prevent governments from opting out of the neoliberal paradigm, thereby conditioning future economic policies. This will weaken democratic structures and increase dependence on the US and on transnational capital. Washington and many western European governments have warmly greeted the Pacific Alliance as it is clearly intended to be a direct challenge to the leadership of the anti-hegemonic countries in Latin America.
In a regional reflection of the global situation Latin America is poised between the old and the new. There exists an old and still powerful elite pushing a discredited free trade doctrine, reining over low-intensity democracies and needing Latin America firmly in the US orbit in order to preserve their position. On the other side lie the new integrational, developmentalist and socialist projects of the anti-hegemonic governments, and their vision of a multilateral world. The Latin American relationship with the rising powers of Eurasia, based on mutual international economic, political and security interests, and upon an acceptance of ideological pluralism and non-intervention, is therefore key to their own survival and prosperity, and part of a much broader global challenge to the post-1945 world order.