You have to feel a bit sorry for the Obama administration. The White House in December announced plans to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, including establishing a U.S. Embassy in Havana and formally revisiting Cuba's status as a state sponsor of terrorism. The move was a clear effort by Washington to distinguish itself in a new international theater.
But that gambit was soon eclipsed by another: In a meeting that could herald a significant shift in the Western Hemisphere's balance of power, China hosted a high-profile summit earlier this month with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, or Celac.
Celac is a relatively recent invention. Conceived in 2010 at a meeting in Caracas hosted by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez , it is designed to deepen integration among Central and South American states—while excluding the U.S. and Canada. The 33-member bloc explicitly styles itself as an alternative to the U.S.-led Organization of American States and a "weapon against imperialism," aka American influence.
This month's summit, held in Beijing, certainly moved the bloc further in that direction. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to double Chinese trade with the Celac countries over the coming decade and to invest $250 billion across the region. Ecuador's Rafael Correa left the summit with more than $7 billion in new Chinese aid and credit, while Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro received much-needed pledges of investment from China's state-run Bank of China and China Development Bank.
China's heightened interest is indicative of a new regional reality. In recent years, as a result of budgetary constraints and general indifference, the Obama administration has retreated from Central and South America. That retrenchment was encapsulated in Secretary of State John Kerry 's declaration to the Organization of American States in 2013 that "the era of the Monroe doctrine is over."
America's withdrawal has been met by the advance of other extraregional actors, chief among them China, Russia and—on a smaller scale—Iran. All three have devoted significant resources in recent years to improving their position south of the U.S. border, but it is Beijing that has taken the lead.
In 2014 the Kremlin's ill-considered annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and Vladimir Putin 's continued aggression against Kiev have led to a lasting rupture between Moscow and the West. The resulting economic pressure from the U.S. and Europe, coupled with the plummeting world price of oil, has left the Russian economy in the financial doldrums and put Russia's plans for Latin America on hold, at least for the moment.
Iran, too, remains interested in the Americas. With its diplomatic isolation gradually waning thanks to negotiations with the West, Tehran could soon significantly expand its regional footprint. But for now, at least, the Islamic Republic's intrusion into the Americas—while worrisome—remains a work in progress.
That leaves China as the sole player with both the economic clout and geopolitical ambition to rally Latin America's leaders. But to what end?
During the past decade, China's engagement in the region has been mostly economic in nature, with Chinese firms establishing a significant presence throughout Central and South America. But Beijing's public activities have been matched by quieter, more questionable ones, such as assistance to Argentina's nuclear program and the development of satellites for both Venezuela and Bolivia. Perhaps most noticeably, the Chinese government (through corporate intermediaries) has committed to the construction of a massive $40 billion, 80-kilometer passageway for maritime transit between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in Nicaragua as an alternative shipping route to the U.S.-dominated Panama Canal.
These initiatives, and others, indicate that Beijing sees the region at least in part as an arena for strategic competition, one where China has the ability to significantly improve its geopolitical standing. China's courtship of Celac suggests that it is liable to do so at the expense of the U.S., since its soft-power outreach will inevitably impact America's economic interests in the region—and, over time, quite possibly its security as well. Balanced against all this, the Obama administration's new Cuba opening seems meager indeed.