At a recent debate in Washington about the rise of China, a U.S. career diplomat struck an optimistic note. Yes, China would probably soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy, he conceded, but the Middle Kingdom was unlikely to rival the United States anytime soon when it came to “soft power,” or cultural influence and attractiveness.
Indeed, soft power is generally seen as a major asset in the foreign policy realm, helping countries achieve their goals without resorting to “hard power” – i.e., coercive means. “Young people around the world,” the diplomat confidently asserted, “still listen to American music, watch American movies and dream of coming to the United States.”
Particularly in Latin America, that remains as true as ever, despite Donald Trump in the White House and a historic and irreversible shift of economic power away from the West towards Asia. The United States’ cultural influence and visibility stands unrivaled across Latin America. Chinese culture, by comparison, remains largely unknown and is usually met with indifference and a lack of interest. While some people are aware of China’s growing economic role in Latin America – it is already the largest trading partner of several of the region’s major economies, including Brazil, Chile and Peru – most would struggle to name a single Chinese contemporary singer, athlete or soap opera star. Latin America’s mass media busily reports even minor events in U.S. politics or cultural life, yet Chinese news remain the stuff of specialists.
Yet while U.S. soft power may provide some tangible economic benefits in Latin America – think of tourism to Disney World and New York, Netflix subscriptions and Starbucks sales – it has also shown to be a double-edged sword, particularly in the foreign policy realm. China’s under-the-radar approach in Latin America, by comparison, also brings important advantages, some of which may, paradoxically, be of greater strategic relevance in the long term. That is because, in a region traditionally concerned about U.S. meddling, strong cultural influence tends to inflate the perceived political and economic influence. While the United States’ de facto influence in Latin America has declined significantly over the past decade – partly due to China’s growing role in the region, but also because U.S. policymakers generally do not see the region as a priority – this change is barely reflected in the public debate, where the U.S. role remains outsized.
That often makes cooperating with the United States politically costly. When Brazil’s former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso reached, in 2000, a groundbreaking space cooperation deal with the United States, which would involve U.S. use of the Brazilian space agency’s launch site in Alcântara in Northern Brazil (its equatorial location allows reducing fuel costs of satellite launches by 30 percent), the opposition saw an opportunity to whip up anti-American nationalist sentiment by mischaracterizing the technology safeguards agreement (TSA) as a threat to Brazil’s sovereignty. Cardoso found himself accused of being an entreguista and canceled the project, which would have allowed Brazil to develop precious expertise in the area – increasingly important due to strong growth in the microsatellite sector crucial for GPS and internet communication. When the current government of Michel Temer took up the project recently, pressure again intensified, even though this time its successful conclusion is more likely. If the project partner had been China back then or today, it seems unlikely that the project would have faced as much political resistance.
This episode is starkly contrasted by how China can operate across Latin America and make strategic investments almost without any real concern for public opinion. When Chinese investors recently bought a third of Brazil’s electricity sector – a sector of tremendous strategic importance – the news barely made it to the front page of Brazilian newspapers.
A few months ago, the right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, currently ahead in the polls, took a page out of the Trumpian playbook and began to attack China. Bolsonaro’s strategists wanted to test whether the anti-China rhetoric would help mobilize his supporters. It did not. In Brazil, as across most of Latin America, China mostly instills neither fear nor admiration. By and large, people simply have no opinion of it. Bolsonaro has recently seemed to be talking less of China, instead focusing more on other imagined threats that scare his voters more than the Middle Kingdom – like feminists, gays and human rights defenders.
China’s detached approach is far from risk-free. For example, a growing number of voices is asking to what extent Beijing can be blamed for not having nudged the government in Caracas to adopt fiscally responsible policies, despite providing lavish unconditional credit lines. NGOs are now frequently questioning the environmental standards of Chinese projects. Should public opinion ever shift against China, the government in Beijing would have few levers to react.
Currently, nobody is interested in attacking China, but if things go wrong, few may be willing to defend it. As Venezuelan economist Ricardo Hausmann believes, once Venezuela’s population discovers to what extent China has been responsible for the country’s mess, it may be the first country to see the rise of systematic sinophobia. Given China’s careful approach, which makes it far less visible to the casual Latin American observer, that seems like a long way off.
This is compounded, of course, by ill-advised remarks by Trump and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about, respectively, military intervention in Venezuela and the Monroe Doctrine. As long as such statements continue, China may continue to seem like a distant and rather abstract concern.