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Here’s an important story that almost went unnoticed in 2017: China is continuing to gain political and economic clout in Latin America at the expense of the United States, helped by President Donald Trump’s lack of attention — if not his disdain — for the region.
Trump’s diatribes against Mexico, his anti-immigration tirades, his anti-free trade stances and his decision to withdraw from the 195-country Paris Climate Accord are giving China a golden opportunity to expand its influence in Latin America.
In addition, China got more room to grow in the region after Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) between the United States and 11 countries from Asia and Latin America that, in part, was aimed at curtailing China’s growing economic influence in the world.
Granted, China’s growing presence in Latin America started long before Trump.
The percentage of Latin America’s imports from the United States fell from 50 percent of the region’s total imports in 2000 to 33 percent in 2016, while China’s share rose from 3 percent to 18 percent in the same period, according to Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) figures. Latin Americans are increasingly buying more China-made laptops and cars that used to be imported from the United States.
If the United States were to regain the market share in Latin American imports that it had in 2000, it could be exporting around $788 billion a year to the region and would be creating about 1 million additional U.S. jobs, the IADB says.
But while Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Latin America a week after Trump’s inauguration in what was his third visit there in three years, Trump has shown very little interest in the region.
Trump has not only failed to visit Latin America, but has vowed to build a wall on the U.S. southern border and is threatening to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
Nearly a year after his inauguration, Trump has yet to appoint a State Department head of Western Hemisphere affairs. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has failed to attend key hemispheric foreign ministers meetings to discuss regional sanctions on Venezuela at the 34-country Organization of American States in Washington.
So far, the Trump administration has only pursued a “negative agenda” toward the region: opposing trade, immigration and environmental agreements and cutting foreign aid, without offering any constructive plans to improve hemispheric ties.
And Trump’s frequent insults against Latin Americans — such as depicting most undocumented immigrants as criminals, rapists and “bad hombres” — have made him the most unpopular U.S. president in the region in recent memory.
A Latin America-wide poll released by Latinobarómetro last month showed that, on a scale of 0 to 10, Trump got a 2.7 rating in the region, the lowest mark since the poll started asking that question in 2005.
China, meantime, is wasting no time in taking advantage of Trump’s isolationism.
IADB president Luis Alberto Moreno told me that he was impressed to see 750 Chinese business people who traveled for 28 hours from China to Punta del Este, Uruguay, for a China-Latin American business meeting he organized earlier this month.
“One feels a huge interest on the part of Chinese and Latin American business people in strengthening much more their commercial ties,” Moreno told me. The United States should pursue a strategy of active re-engagement with Latin America in order to regain its market share in the region, he added.
I agree. Trump could start by attending the 34-country Summit of the Americas scheduled for April 2018, in Lima, Peru, and propose a positive agenda for the region, with new trade, diplomatic and cultural initiatives to improve hemispheric ties.
Asked whether the president will attend that summit, a senior White House official emailed me that, “The administration aims to strengthen prosperity and security” in the region, “but has not yet announced the president’s travel plans for 2018.”
Other sources close to the administration tell me that Trump may not even attend the summit of hemispheric heads of state, which would make him the first U.S. president to shun the meeting in almost 25 years.
The Chinese couldn’t be happier.