CHINA WATCHChina’s Growing Influence in Latin America

By Diana Roy

Published 20 April 2022

Over the past two decades, China has developed close economic and security ties with many Latin American countries, including Brazil and Venezuela. But Beijing’s growing sway in the region has raised concerns in Washington and beyond.

China’s role in Latin America has grown rapidly since 2000, promising economic opportunity even while raising concerns over Beijing’s influence. China’s state firms are major investors in the region’s energy, infrastructure, and space industries, and the country has surpassed the United States as South America’s largest trading partner. Beijing has also expanded its diplomatic, cultural, and military presence. Most recently, it has leveraged its support in the fight against COVID-19, supplying the region with medical equipment, loans, and hundreds of millions of vaccine doses.

But the United States and its allies fear that Beijing is using these relationships to pursue its geopolitical goals, including the further isolation of Taiwan, and to bolster authoritarian regimes. U.S. President Joe Biden, who sees China as a “strategic competitor” in the region, is seeking ways to counter its growing sway.

What is China’s History with Latin America?
China’s ties to the region date to the sixteenth century, when the Manila galleon trade route facilitated the exchange of porcelain, silk, and spices between China and Mexico. By the 1840s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants were being sent to work as “coolies,” or indentured servants, in Cuba and Peru, often on sugar plantations or in silver mines. Over the next century, China’s ties to the region were largely migration-related [PDF] as Beijing remained preoccupied with its own domestic upheaval.

Most Latin American countries recognized Mao Zedong’s communist government following U.S. President Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing in 1972, but it was not until after China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 that they began to form robust cultural, economic, and political ties. Today, Peru has the region’s largest Chinese diaspora community, amounting to about 5 percent of the population, or one million people. Other countries with large diaspora communities include Brazil, Cuba, Paraguay, and Venezuela.