China is now a bigger trade partner with many countries in Latin America than the United States, even since US President Joe Biden took office in early 2021, a new study has found.
With Beijing focusing on resource-rich states in South America, China widened the gap with the US last year in many countries – except for Mexico, which is the top US trade partner.
An analysis of UN trade data from 2015-2021 shows that the United States has lost ground in a region long seen as its backyard, even as Biden aims to reset ties at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles this week.
Mexico and the United States have had a free trade deal since the 1990s and the amount of commerce between the two next-door neighbors alone overshadows Washington’s commerce with the rest of Latin America.
But the trade gap with the United States in the rest of the region, which opened up under former US President Donald Trump in 2018, has grown since Biden took office in January last year, despite a pledge to restore Washington’s role as a global leader and to refocus attention on Latin America after years of what he once called “neglect.”
On the ground current and former officials said that the US has been slow to take concrete action and that China, a major buyer of grains and metals, simply offers more to the region in terms of trade and investment.
Juan Carlos Capunay, Peru’s former ambassador to China, said that Mexico aside, “the most important commercial, economic and technological ties for Latin America are definitely with China, which is the top trade partner for the region, well above the United States.”
But he said that politically the region still was more aligned with the United States.
Mexico-US Trade Flows
Excluding Mexico, total trade imports and exports between Latin America and China hit nearly $247 billion last year, according to the latest available data, well above the $174 billion with the United States. The 2021 data lacks trade numbers from some regional countries but those balance each other out in terms of US-China bias.
The outlier in Latin America, Mexico’s trade flows with the United States were $607 billion last year, up from $496 billion in 2015. Its trade with China was $110 billion, up from around $75 billion six years before.
The White House and US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an apparent effort to present a specific alternative to China, senior US officials said Biden would announce an “Americas Partnership” plan at the Los Angeles summit focusing on promoting pandemic recovery by building on existing trade agreements.
It would aim to mobilise investments, reinvigorate the Inter-American Development Bank, create clean energy jobs and strengthen supply chains, the officials said. But such an initiative could face US protectionist pushback as well as questions about how the region’s widely diverse economies could make it work.
‘Gobbling up Soybeans, Corn & Copper’
Biden aides who have travelled Latin America have tried to convince partners that Washington is a more reliable and transparent partner for doing business, openly accusing China of using investment to create “debt traps” for countries.
But one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded that Washington faced a tough challenge. “As long as China is ready to put its cash on the table, we seem to be fighting a losing battle,” the person said.
When the huge US-Mexico trade flow is included the United States still comes out on top, but this masks the wider trend in the region where made-in-China products are gaining ground and Beijing is gobbling up soybeans, corn and copper.
China leads in Argentina, has extended its lead in Andean copper giants Chile and Peru, and seen a huge advance in Brazil, despite far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s scepticism about Chinese business interests holding too much sway in the country.
Transport, Infrastructure Investment
Welber Barral, Brazil-based partner at BMJ Consultores Associados, said China often brought investment in transport and infrastructure which helped trade deals in grains and metals, while governments often felt the United States was all rhetoric.
“Latin American governments complain that there’s a lot of talk but ask ‘where is the money’?” he said.
The US-hosted Summit in Los Angeles is seen as key platform to counter China, but Biden has already been hit by no-shows including Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador over the exclusion of countries like Cuba and Venezuela.
Eric Farnsworth, a former White House official now at the Council of the Americas think tank, said soaring commodities prices had boosted Latin America-China trade figures, but acknowledged that a busy US domestic policy agenda and the war in Ukraine had kept Biden’s focus elsewhere.
“There’s bipartisan agreement that the US just hasn’t been at the table,” he said. “The summit is part of solving that but there needs to be something concrete that comes out of it.”
• Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard