BY JOEL GEHRKE
Chinese Communist Party officials have unveiled an “action plan for cooperation” with Latin American countries that amounts to a “comprehensive” plan to cultivate influence and threaten American interests, following a new ministerial with the nearest neighbors of the United States.
“The Chinese don’t say, ‘We want to take over Latin America,’ but they clearly set out a multidimensional engagement strategy, which, if successful, would significantly expand their leverage and produce enormous intelligence concerns for the United States,” U.S. Army War College research professor Evan Ellis, a former member of the State Department policy planning staff, told the Washington Examiner.
Chinese officials outlined their ambitions following a ministerial with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. This intergovernmental forum was launched in 2011 under the auspices of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who wanted a venue to rival the Organization of American States and challenge U.S. influence in Latin America, and it now stands to furnish Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping with a platform to gather a coalition of leftist and authoritarian leaders congenial to Beijing’s interests.
“The Chinese Communist Party and government are actively looking to strengthen their ties throughout the Western Hemisphere, in particular with anti-American elements,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a senior Senate Intelligence Select Committee Republican, said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. “Beijing is seeking to surpass the United States in every sector, and we must take this threat seriously.”
China’s exploitation of ideological fault lines in Latin America was thrown into sharp relief earlier this month, when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, just weeks after the OAS General Assembly rebuked him for overseeing elections that “were not free, fair, or transparent and have no democratic legitimacy,” opted to close the Taiwanese Embassy in favor of a new relationship with Beijing.
“The Ortega-Murillo regime has announced it has severed diplomatic relations and ended official contact with Taiwan, but the sham election on Nov. 7 did not provide it with any mandate to remove Nicaragua from the family of American democracies,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a Dec. 9 response. “Without the mandate that comes with a free and fair election, Ortega’s actions cannot reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people, who continue to struggle for democracy and the ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Rubio, who also leads the GOP side of the Senate foreign relations subcommittee for the Western Hemisphere, was unsatisfied with that response and President Joe Biden’s broader approach to Latin America.
“The Ortega-Murillo regime sees the CCP as a better ideological ally than the U.S. because Ortega’s long list of crimes and human rights violations are of no concern to the genocidal regime in Beijing,” he wrote in an op-ed published Tuesday. “Ortega also wants continued Chinese funding for the construction of an Atlantic-to-Pacific canal through Nicaragua, which People’s Liberation Army warships can then use to access the Caribbean.”
Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada has expressed interest , according to Chinese state media, in joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the overseas infrastructure investment that U.S. officials regard as a predatory lending scheme to buy an empire . Some economic projects in the region already have caught the attention of U.S. national security officials, especially as then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s global campaign to warn allies that Chinese telecommunications infrastructure represented an espionage threat.
“The region is ripe for investment, for engagement, with a partner of China’s size in different sectors,” Heritage Foundation research assistant Mateo Haydar said. “And [China is] capitalizing on that in ways that I think we’re failing to recognize and at a speed that I think we’re failing to respond to.”
Chinese officials offered a more elaborate preview of their ambitions for the region just a few days before Nicaragua cut ties with Taipei. The China-CELAC ministerial on Dec. 3 culminated in the adoption of a plan not only to tighten economic ties but to enhance “political and security cooperation” while deepening China’s involvement in high-tech spheres — from cyberspace and artificial intelligence to “space science, satellite data sharing, satellite applications, construction of ground infrastructure,” and even nuclear energy.
“There are absolutely ambitions for China to become the dominant influence in Latin America,” Haydar added. “The challenge is comprehensive, and there’s absolutely a security and military interest there. … That threat is growing, and it’s a different kind of threat than what we saw with the Soviet threat.”