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The new imperialism: Chinese leader Xi Jinping with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro in the Miraflores Palace, Caracas (© LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images)


For more than half of the 19th century and much of the 20th, US foreign policy was dominated by the Monroe Doctrine, which dictated that efforts by the European powers to take further control in North or South America would be viewed as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States”.

America appears to have lost sight of this traditional strategic focus. In the absence of meaningful US involvement in Latin America since the Cold War, several countries have begun to engage seriously with the region. Of these, China’s advances into the hemisphere have made James Monroe’s concerns relevant once again. Nothing symbolised this tension more than the overshadowing of the recent G20 meeting in Argentina, by the US-China trade war.

The irony is that America’s increasingly tense trade dispute with China and her military focus on south-east Asia is pushing China into the Latin backyard of the US. Latin America is becoming an important part of China’s sophisticated hedging operation to counter the US. China has done a far better job than the US of identifying areas of critical vulnerability and has taken huge strides towards addressing them.

The most visible element of this strategy has been the One Belt One Road initiative, designed to link China, central Asia and Eastern Europe — the aim being to secure overland access to markets despite US economic pressure, and to maintain lines of communication that circumvent the South China Sea’s major vulnerabilities.

Trade tensions are likely to lead to China decreasing its export relationship with the US. Given its geo-strategic position in regard to the US, its abundance of natural resources and willingness to engage with China, Latin America presents China with significant opportunities to counter US strategic, economic and political power. The ability to develop a new trade relationship that fulfils critical agricultural and resource demands, and a new market for Chinese goods, will help offset deteriorating economic relations with the US and potentially insulate it from trade shocks with the Americans.

The appeal of Latin America for China is immense, not just because of the material economic and strategic implications, but because Chinese economic and military cooperation facilitates an important political goal: it undermines the norms and rules that have facilitated liberal internationalism. China’s economic expansion globally has been accompanied by none of the rules-based systems that marked US hegemony. It has been visible in China’s tolerance and support for North Korea and Iran, not to mention smaller corrupt states. Authoritarian regimes are far easier for China to do business with. In Latin America, as elsewhere, China’s involvement is steadily rolling back democratisation on the US southern flank.

Monroe’s edict was in effect a ban on great power participation in Latin America and a prohibition on political systems other than liberal democracy. Directed at European imperial powers in the 19th century, it shifted focus to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After 1989, while America enjoyed unipolarity, Washington’s “backyard” was downgraded on the list of strategic priorities. The doctrine stood until November 2013 when then Secretary of State John Kerry declared its end at the Organisation of American States. Kerry’s speech was striking:
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