Barack Obama

Trading places

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2011, 12:00am

US President Barack Obama's first trip to Central and South America was largely overshadowed by events in Libya and Japan, but it is notable that Washington, which used to consider the region its backyard, is trying to regain influence lost to a country pretty far away: China.

Obama's visit to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador comes 50 years after former US president John F. Kennedy's declaration of the Alliance for Progress, which was aimed at countering Soviet influence in the region. But, by the late 1960s, Washington's attention had shifted to Southeast Asia, where it became embroiled in the Vietnam war. In recent years, America's attention has been focused on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with little time to devote to Latin America.

In the meantime, China has been active in the region, pursuing access to markets and resources to fuel its economic development. In 2004, President Hu Jintao went to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Cuba. The message was that China intended to promote a partnership with the region. Since then, China's attention has not wavered.

Bilateral trade between China and Brazil rose from US$2 billion in 2000 to more than US$56 billion last year. It is no coincidence that for two countries on Obama's itinerary - Brazil and Chile - China, not the US, is the biggest trading partner.

Washington's attitude has changed under Obama, with the president promising an 'equal partnership' with Latin America based on mutual respect and shared values. He has now moved to capitalise on his new approach and his personal popularity in the region to try to revitalise the American economy and create jobs. As Obama said in a major speech in Chile: 'Latin America is more important than ever to the prosperity of the United States.'

Nonetheless, the US history of military involvement in Latin America, including invasions and coups d'?tat, haunted Obama during his visit, especially in Chile. There, the American leader was asked about Washington's responsibility for the CIA-backed military coup of 1973, which overthrew the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and resulted in the dictatorial rule of General Augusto Pinochet. Obama acknowledged that the history between the US and Latin America had sometimes been 'extremely difficult' but said that, while it was important to learn from the past, it was also important not to get stuck in it.

The growing economies of the region are seen as areas where the US can increase its economic outreach. Obama has announced the goal of doubling exports in five years. Brazil, the focus of the Obama visit, is preparing to spend US$200 billion on the 2014 soccer World Cup and 2016 summer Olympic Games.

The Obama foray into Latin American also comes as China is encountering problems. Tensions with Brazil have grown over Chinese trade practices, especially since Dilma Rousseff became president in January, succeeding Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who riled Washington over a number of issues, including Iran.

Brazil has brought dozens of anti-dumping cases against Beijing in the World Trade Organisation and has lost market share to China in its own markets, such as Argentina. Rousseff wants to nurture local industries and address what Brazilians see as a lopsided trade relationship.

Nor is Brazil the only country in Latin America concerned about Chinese policies and practices. That being the case, there is an opening for the US to redress the balance and enhance its role.

Just as China was seen as an alternative to the US in previous years, so now the countries of Latin America see the US as a useful balance to rising Chinese influence on the continent.

In the end, it is good for the region not to be too dependent on any country, either China or the US. Similarly, it is good for China and the US that neither can take Latin America for granted, the former as fellow developing countries and the latter as fellow members of the western hemisphere.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: FrankChing1