China's Growing Involvement in Latin America Carries 'Significant Negative Consequences' for U.S.

Ellis told the panel that the U.S. can’t afford to “turn a blind eye” toward growing Chinese activity in Latin America and its impact on America’s strategic position therein, “even if short-term PRC intentions appear mostly benign.”

“The security of the United States is bound to Latin America and the Caribbean through ties of geography, commerce and family,” he said. “As such, I respectfully submit that we have a responsibility to our citizens, and to our partners in the hemisphere, to ensure that the region’s engagement with extra-hemispheric actors such as the PRC is consistent with U.S. objectives of democracy, development and good governance there, and of course, the security of the U.S. homeland.”

Ellis said the U.S. should assist Latin American nations in obtaining the maximum possible benefit from their engagement with China while avoiding potential pitfalls and negative consequences. And Congress, he said, should approve the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement involving the U.S. and several Pacific Rim countries that could be used to introduce them to Latin American markets.

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, one of the two panels conducting the hearing, characterized China’s involvement in Latin America as an “understudied, yet strategically important, trend,” noting that China’s bilateral trade with the hemisphere grew from $15 billion in 2001 to $288.9 billion in 2013.

“While China’s presence in Latin America and the Caribbean has been largely limited to trade and investment, there is a movement towards greater military relationships,” Salmon said. “Nuclear cooperation, shared space assets and arms sales not only provide China with economic and military leverage in the region, but may also expand China’s ability to mitigate one of our major advantages: our relative geographic isolation.”

China, he said, likely will continue to maintain that it has no foreign bases.

“But China’s not-explicitly-military partnerships with countries in strategic geographic locations like Brazil to share space and satellite assets for earth observation, may raise some eyebrows,” Salmon said. “No foreign bases does not mean no foreign presence, and we should be wary of any potential military implications of Chinese presence in our neighborhood.”

By lending billions of dollars to service legitimate needs in developing countries in the Western Hemisphere, Salmon said, China has secured not only lucrative contracts but also diplomatic support.

“China’s growing economic, trade, military, and diplomatic relationships with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean certainly have implications for U.S. foreign engagement in the region,” he said. “We welcome China’s presence in the region and hope that they will yield mutual benefits for all countries involved. However, we hope that this does not come at the expense of the rule of law and good governance and further entrenching inequality, corruption, illicit commerce, and violence. As the United States continues to look eastward toward Asia, a vital part of our economic and strategic future, we must not forget the relationships with our closest neighbors.”