In places like Venezuela and Honduras, millions of citizens have fled political instability and violence in recent years, only to find that the Trump administration has all but closed its borders to asylum seekers. The country’s protectionist turn has also seen tariffs imposed on longstanding trade partners in the hemisphere. From Santiago, Chile, to Mexico City and everywhere in between, America’s leadership is being called into question and China is positioning itself to carry the mantle.
Despite mishandling the initial outbreak of the coronavirus, China has sought to redeem its image and to curry favor by helping governments across the world flatten their coronavirus infection curves. Compared with the United States, China has a timing advantage in flooding the globe with pandemic assistance, as the early outbreak in Wuhan and China’s draconian response have permitted the country to restart industries and international commerce.
China’s carefully designed messaging has enhanced its strategic advantage. On April 13, the foreign minister of Argentina applauded China upon receiving a large shipment of much-needed masks, gloves and protective suits. The delivery boxes were emblazoned with the Chinese and Argentine flags and a quote in Spanish about brotherhood from the beloved Argentine poem “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” by José Hernández.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has railed against Chinese designs on South America and whose son infuriated the Chinese government when he blamed China for the pandemic, has now downplayed the divisive rhetoric in a gambit to secure a greater share of China’s soybean and meat import market. Brazilian beef exports to China have already doubled from 2019 to compensate for a disruption in China’s domestic meat supply chains and pending prohibitions on wild animal meat sales in China.
During one of his daily coronavirus briefings early this month, President Trump made the tone-deaf announcement that the United States is increasing military assets in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to support the counternarcotics mission. Against a backdrop of great-power competition coupled with a brewing humanitarian crisis, instead of sending Navy destroyers and Coast Guard cutters, the United States should surge humanitarian assistance to our neighbors in the Americas.
If not, the spread of Covid-19 promises to exacerbate human suffering and trigger an even greater migration crisis while leaving the hemisphere more open to Chinese cooperation and ever more wary of American partnership.
Paul Angelo is a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Rebecca Bill Chavez was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama and is a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue.
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