The 2014 FIFA World Cup was an opportunity for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to showcase Latin America to international leaders, from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to Germany’s Angela Merkel. But as the football goals of this summer have given way to the horrors of war in both the Middle East and Ukraine, the attention being paid to Latin America by East Asia has received comparatively little attention. Both Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Brazil in mid-July, ostensibly for the BRICS Summit, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent five-country Latin America trip highlight this newly emerging nexus, suggesting alternatives to Latin America’s traditional links to Europe and the United States.
While European roots run deep in the New World and the United States has asserted itself as a strategic guardian of the Western Hemisphere since the Monroe Doctrine, Asia represents the future for many countries in Latin America that see huge export markets in the world’s second- and third-largest economies. As Beijing and Tokyo continue to compete globally, their need to secure energy and raw materials from Latin America, across the Pacific Ocean, could produce a more heated rivalry than their competition in Africa.
The itineraries and focus of discussions in Latin America by the competing Chinese and Japanese delegations send clear signals about their respective intentions. Both Beijing and Tokyo preferred dealing with blocs such as the Community of Latin Americana and Caribbean States (CELAC). Yet China has supported Venezuela, the region’s most anti-United States regime, and China’s resource-backed loan agreements, its establishment of a BRICS development bank, and its subtle attempts at undermining transatlantic credibility in the region have raised concerns in Western capitals. Of late, Beijing has been very forward-leaning in its outreach to Latin America, where countries such as Peru are home to sizeable ethnic Chinese population. At the same time, China represents competition, rather than complementarities, for many Latin American markets.
Meanwhile, Shinzo Abe’s visit to Colombia, the first by any Japanese prime minister to what is arguably the most pro-United States country in the region, did not go unnoticed in Washington. And Abe’s discussions of bilateral trade agreements, his championing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his encouragement for reform of global governance (specifically the UN Security Council) based on democratic values aligned more naturally with the transatlantic framework of Latin American engagement. Tokyo’s formal outreach to Latin America is long overdue given that it has some natural advantages of its own, not least significant ethnic Japanese populations living in Brazil and Peru.
U.S. and European businesses are more entrenched in Latin American than their Asian counterparts, and enjoy certain advantages. However, Asian businesses benefit from the novelty and potential for opportunity that they represent. As the chill blowing between Beijing and Tokyo continues to freeze East Asia, winds of competition blowing as far as Latin America are certain to affect traditional geopolitical calculations. Regardless of the specific outcomes of Xi and Abe’s respective trips to Latin America, they represent an inflection point for Asian interests in the region, a development that should be eliciting the attention of the United States and Europe.