Washington is pointedly avoiding citing China by name as it works to unveil a positive agenda for Latin America, senior White House officials said on Wednesday, even as it has tried to sidestep controversy over the guest list at a regional summit this week.
President Joe Biden is focused on strengthening democracy, increasing multilateral bank activity, reducing migration and bolstering the middle class at the Summit of the Americas this week in Los Angeles – despite inordinate attention on Washington’s decision not to invite several leftist-leaning countries.
“Democracy is under assault around the world, let us unite again and renew our conviction that democracy is not only the defining feature of American histories, but the essential ingredient to Americas’ futures,” Biden said. “Let’s get to work building the future this region deserves.”
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
As the president unveils a series of initiatives during the week, however, he will largely avoid comparing these publicly to China’s Belt and Road Initiative or outsize trading presence, senior officials said.
“The best antidote to China’s inroads in the region is to ensure that we are fording our own affirmative vision for the region economically,” a US official said on background. “That’s why it’s so important that we do lay down a really ambitious, regionally comprehensive, updated vision for the kind of economic partnership we want.”
The US official said fewer US initiatives in recent years had created a vacuum that allowed China to make inroads and pursue projects not necessarily in the best interest of Latin American and Caribbean nations.
“We do ourselves both an economic service as well as advancing our geostrategic gains by just putting out an affirmative vision,” she said.
The Biden administration has struggled to promote those initiatives given the kerfuffle over its decision to leave Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua off the guest list. That decision saw the presidents of Brazil and Argentina threaten to skip the US-hosted meeting, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador eventually pulling out.
US officials said the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity initiative differs somewhat from the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) unveiled in Tokyo last month, given the US already has free-trade agreements with 11 countries it can build on.
The administration intends to spend the next several months recruiting various Western Hemisphere nations to enter negotiations towards an eventual economic agreement aimed at better coordinating supply chains, digital frameworks and clean energy, and tackling trade barriers not covered under earlier agreements, a senior administration official said.
Given strong US opposition to trade agreements – which industry and labour groups often blame for the shift of manufacturing jobs overseas – any agreement is not expected to require approval by Congress and will not trade US market access for economic reforms in partner countries, US officials said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told business leaders that significant impediments remain before investors feel comfortable in the region, citing everything from regulatory frameworks to corruption.
“There’s a lot of capital out there, but it’s not going to be deployed if the environment in which you want to deploy it is simply too risky and too complicated,” Blinken said.
In keeping with the IPEF, however, the Americas Partnership will have a menu of “pillars” that countries can opt to join after they negotiate and show they can meet the agreement’s standards, towards a hoped-for ministerial meeting in the autumn, an official said.
One pillar seeks to make supply chains more resilient and reduce dependency on “certain countries”, an official said, without mentioning China by name.
Another aims to reform and potentially increase capital at the Inter-American Development Bank and encourage other multilateral lending organisations to expand their presence in the region, with an eye on boosting social capital and reducing climate change, she said.
On other fronts, the proposed agreement would seek to strengthen ties between citizens and their governments through innovation, infrastructure, technology, healthcare, taxes, women’s rights and corruption to make life “better and fairer”.
The fourth and fifth pillars aspire to tackle sustainable farming, clean energy, regulatory issues, customs practices, labour, the environment, and food and energy inflation caused by Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine, among others, officials said.
With this week’s diverse raft of initiatives – including others involving women, cities, refugees and private sector investment – the administration hopes to make up for lost time and counter the growing sway of Beijing, which it views as a “strategic competitor”.
“It is significantly more impactful on the actual lives and livelihoods of the people of this region than the kinds of extractive projects that China has been invested in,” said national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Wednesday. “We think we are mobilising and coming to the table with a lot.”
China’s presence in America’s “backyard” has grown significantly over the past two decades as Washington focused more attention on the Asia-Pacific region. China’s state-owned companies are major players in the hemisphere’s infrastructure, energy and space sectors, and Beijing has surpassed the US as South America’s largest trading partner.
China took the opportunity this week to needle Washington over the politically sensitive issue of migration and refugees along the US southern border with Mexico.
“The serious issue of migrants and refugees faced by the US is a boomerang of its own hegemonic and bullying practice,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing on Monday.
“At the ninth Summit of the Americas, it should officially respond to Latin American countries’ legitimate concerns on the issue of migrants, and present practical solutions.”
Analysts said Washington’s regional initiatives this week constitute a start but that there is significant ground to make up.
“Biden’s IPEF initiative in Asia as in Latin America appears … too little too late,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political-science professor at Baptist University in Hong Kong. “Moreover, instead of being inclusive, the US has been inclined to exclude countries it does not like, triggering Mexico’s boycott of the meeting.
“This will help China reach out to the excluded nations and altogether appear more inclusive.”
More from South China Morning Post:
This article US mute on China in unveiling ‘ambitious’ Latin America plans at Summit of the Americas first appeared on South China Morning Post