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Commentary

Biden Wants To Stand Up To China. That Will Mean Standing Taller In Latin America

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Chinese Government
'GIGANTIC' DEALS Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele (left) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2019.

COMMENTARY After Afghanistan, Biden's drive to compete more seriously with Beijing should include partnering more seriously with the Caribbean Basin.

With Afghanistan now painfully in their rearview mirror, Americans are mad at four presidents:

Bush II for getting the U.S. into a military-led nation-building quagmire there two decades ago. Obama for getting the U.S. deeper into a military-led nation-building quagmire there a decade ago. Trump for signing a booby-trapped U.S. troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban last year. And Biden for walking right into the booby trap last month.

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But as President Biden stressed in his defense-of-President-Biden speech this week, he’s determined now to have the U.S. ditch military-led nation-building and “turn the page on the foreign policy that’s guided our nation” for way too long. Specifically, Biden wants America to get more serious about its “serious competition” with China as a “fundamental national security interest.”

Agreed, Mr. President. And one of the best ways the U.S. can get more serious about China is to get more serious about Latin America and the Caribbean.

READ MORE: Miami Exiles Say Invade Cuba, Venezuela? Americans Don't Want Another Afghanistan

Especially the Greater Caribbean Basin. That includes not just Caribbean island nations but the Central American countries that send so many undocumented immigrants to the U.S. border each year. All are sorely tempted (if they haven’t already succumbed to the temptation) to sign up for communist China’s financial largesse — even if it comes with China’s political influence. (Hong Kong repression? Google suppression? No sabemos nada de eso, Señor Xi.) Such is China’s serious competition with the U.S. – in the U.S.’s own hemisphere.

To his credit, Biden (as Obama did) has set his administration’s foreign policy sights on Central America’s impoverished, violence-torn Northern Triangle — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He’s pledged $4 billion to help the Triangle climb out of its economic, corruption and public security abyss. But Biden needs to broaden that scope if he wants to broadside Beijing.

If Biden wants to broadside Beijing on America's own street, he'll have to broaden his hemispheric scope – beyond the Northern Triangle to at least the Greater Caribbean Basin.

That should be apparent each time a Caribbean Basin government turns to China. A few years ago Panama broke relations with Taiwan (which Beijing insists belongs to China) in order to reap China’s international Belt and Road Initiative cash, including $1.4 billion for a bridge over the Panama Canal. The Bahamas recently secured a $3 billion container port, Jamaica a north-south highway. El Salvador more recently inked a deal for what President Nayib Bukele called “gigantic” infrastructure opportunities.

Richard Feinberg, a political economy and Latin America expert at the University of California-San Diego, issued a report this year for the Wilson Center titled “Widening the Aperture: Nearshoring in Our ‘Near Abroad.” It urges the Biden Administration to effectively answer China’s Belt and Road show with a “near-shoring” economic project that engages the U.S.’s “near abroad” neighbors in the Caribbean Basin.

STRATEGIC AWARENESS

Feinberg calls for going beyond the more foreign assistance-oriented approach the Biden Administration has so far outlined for the Northern Triangle. He envisions a Basin-wide supply-chain plan that promotes infrastructure and business development in Caribbean Basin countries, in factory sectors like electronics and service sectors like call centers, and which includes those countries in Biden’s sweeping climate-change initiatives, like renewable energy.

“The U.S. has to put more on the table,” Feinberg told me this week from one of those Caribbean Basin countries, Costa Rica.

“We can’t just do what Trump did and scream, ‘Don’t do business with China!’”

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Moises Castillo
Then Vice President Joe Biden in Guatemala in 2015

Feinberg argues this sort of U.S.-Caribbean Basin partnership — and the U.S. seeing itself as part of the Basin, which South Florida arguably is — “should rise to the level of strategic awareness” for Washington.

“It’s a more holistic approach,” he said, “that would mean a counterweight to Chinese incursion in this hemisphere.”

China’s investment in developing countries like Latin America’s isn’t by itself a specter. Nor are efforts like vaccine diplomacy, which China has orchestrated masterfully in this hemisphere — and which the U.S. is only now starting to match.

But China has a solid rep now for handcuffing its prodigious funding to predatory financing. It often mires those countries in what economists call “debt traps” — leaving Beijing the de facto owner of that spanking new port or highway or bridge.

All of which gives China even more leverage to spread the bunk that its totalitarian brand is an acceptable alternative to U.S.-style democracy.

And all of which makes curbing China in the Americas a fundamental national security interest for America.