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China’s Newfound Interest in Latin America: The threat to a Democratic Wave

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Latin America is witnessing a wave of political change, often referred to as the "new pink tide." However, this shift is accompanied by a concerning trend: the increasing involvement of China, which is casting a shadow over democracy’s prospects across Latin America.

There has been dramatic change in Latin America in recent elections, referred to by some as the nueva marea rosa (new pink tide). In Argentina, the moderate-Leftist Alberto Fernandez, defeated Right incumbent Mauricio Macri in 2019. In 2020, Bolivia’s Leftist leader Evo Morales defeated the conservative interim government lead by Jeanine Áñez. In the same year, far-Left Free Peru’s Pedro Castillo was elected in Peru. 2021 saw Leftist Gabriel Boric elected in Chile, whilst in 2022, Gustavo Petro was elected as the first Leftist president in Colombia’s modern history and President Inacio Lula da Silva defeated the far-Right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. This political cycle is set to intensify as the 2023 electoral agenda includes three major general elections in Paraguay, Guatemala and Argentina. 

Over the past decade, US governments have been less engaged in some countries in the region creating a gap for China to step into. China is now the most important export market to the region and remains the second-largest trading partner to Latin America, following close behind the US. It has also become a major source of foreign direct investment and lending in energy and infrastructure, including through its Belt and Road Initiative across twenty-one countries in the region.  

In recent years, an increase of cohesion between Latin American states and China in terms of trade, geopolitics and even ideology has made the region of particular interest to the Chinese government. China’s particular comfort in cooperation with authoritarian regimes is likely to result in the funding of undemocratic leadership agendas across the region. China has further exploited both Left- and Right-wing populist opportunities in their strategic alignment. 

Chinese interest in Latin America is reinforced by two trends: First, in the economic context, the presence of critical minerals (i.e., lithium in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile) and other natural resources in Latin America makes it a major trade partner for China; Second, geopolitically, Taiwan is only recognised by fourteen states across the globe, eight of which are in Latin America. This is partly due to the strong relationships that existed between the US and smaller Latin American economies. However, recent trends in development financing gaps present an opportunity for China to shift attention towards bilateral relations in these countries in order to influence political favouring. This has been reflected in Panama, El Salvador and Nicaragua (re)establishing diplomatic relations with China leading to increased development funding.  

As countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic continue making great democratic strides in the region, support for democracy remains strong. Nonetheless, this triangular relationship between the US, Latin America and China will continue to present challenges in such a rapidly changing, highly complex, and politically risky context.  

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