When copies of China Daily festoon the entranceways of San José’s nicer hotels, only one thing can be happening – Xi’s back in Latin America. After financing and building the country’s $100 million National Stadium in 2011 as a “gesture of goodwill and friendship” (read: to get Costa Rica to switch its allegiance from Taiwan to China) between China and Costa Rica, China has sent its new premier back to the country to “explore win-win” economic cooperation and “foster mutual respect”.
Ahead of a “summit” next week with President Obama in California where everyone from Jon Huntsman to Ian Bremmer are getting in on the discussion of how to play nice with China, Xi is quietly but confidently doing a whistlestop tour of Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, meeting besties (Persad-Bissar) and frienemies (Peña Nieto) while staking claim to an ambitious American agenda.
What comes out of these meetings remains to be seen, but given that Chinese news outlets often make diplomatic visits read like Mad Libs alternating between “mutual benefit”, “common respect” and “shared harmony and prosperity”, nothing major is likely to emerge out of Mexico, the Caribbean, or Costa Rica the way we will likely see with President Obama.
In the case of Costa Rica and the Caribbean, this is because they are principally conversations that are some permutation of the two questions “what aid can I receive?” and “what can I extract from your economy?” Mexico, of course, is thornier, given its broad competitive threat to China and its strategic importance to the United States.
What should be more enthralling, but is ultimately disappointing is the lack of interest coming out of Washington over this visit. Busy preparing for its own encounter in California, and generally busy standing on the sidelines of Latin America’s rapid changes over the last decade, the U.S. has continued to push a security agenda in Central America and Northern South America that has not adapted to the Chinese counterpunch of massive trade and tangible development projects. President Obama foreshadowed a shift in focus in his recent visit with Peña Nieto, but the way the U.S. views Latin America is worlds apart from the way China sees it.
This makes these visits, despite their overstuffed, formal nature, all the more important. They are setting the tone for something far deeper, and that is a conversation around something that isn’t security, drugs, crime and threats to the U.S. And true or false as the sentiment may be, more Latin American leaders are losing sleep over their economic wellbeing than organized crime or potential security threats. This puts China, particularly in smaller countries in the region, in the driver’s seat when it comes to influence.