November 27, 2008

November 27, 2008 | Commentary on Economy

Russia, China, Move In on Latin America

Today's arrival of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on a two-day visit to Venezuela to meet with President Hugo Chavez is a stark reminder that potential problems aren't always "Over There."

The assertive political, economic and security overtures by Russia - and China, by the way - in the Western Hemisphere mean we had better pay close attention to our own 'hood in the coming years.

First, Russia. Medvedev's Venezuela whistle stop is just one of several scheduled, including Brazil and Cuba, around his attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Peru last weekend.

The Latin American jaunt is clearly meant to exert Russia's self-image as a world - not just regional - power. (Moscow is jousting with Beijing, Washington and Brussels for influence in places like Africa, too.)

It also sends a crystal clear signal to Washington - and president-elect Obama - that Moscow won't abide by US activities that displease it in its "near-abroad" without a bit of nose-tweaking right here in our own hemisphere.

Realizing that the White House's national security plate closely resembles something of the Thanksgiving sort, the Kremlin doesn't mind adding a side dish or two to create some indigestion when it can.

Not surprisingly, Medvedev's visit coincides with the arrival of a Russian flotilla for some gunboat diplomacy in Caribbean waters. It's also a bit of chest-thumping over US warships sailing in the Black Sea during the Georgia crisis.

By selling $4 billion worth of advanced arms to, plus offering to build nuclear power plants for, Palacio de Miraflores, the Kremlin is pushing back on issues like US missile defense in Europe, aimed at the Iranian nuclear threat.

Moscow also continues to lay the ground work for global energy hegemony as it tries to enlist producers in the Americas and elsewhere to sign onto its natural gas cartel, along the lines of oil's OPEC.

And what about China?

Chinese President Hu Jintao left the region on Sunday, capping off visits to Costa Rica, Cuba and Peru with a free trade agreement and another in the works" evidence of China's growing influence in the region.

Hu's APEC entourage included more than 600 businessmen and officials, with 12 government ministers, highlighting the priority of Latin America in Chinese policy.

China's regional focus is mostly economic with $100 billion in annual trade, predominantly carting energy and natural resources back to belching Chinese factories - which are still humming despite the global economic slow-down.

But it's not just economics.

Mindful of the United States' presence and activity in Asia, especially US support for cross-Strait rival Taiwan, Beijing doesn't mind unsettling Washington by involving itself in America's traditional sphere of influence.

Hu was thrilled to visit Costa Rica where China just recently flipped San Jose's diplomatic recognition from US-friendly Taipei to Beijing, using $300 million in secret, soft-loans.

On security, China has a listening post in Cuba directed at America, and is starting to flack its advanced weapons systems in the region, which are now emerging on the world market.

Both China and Russia are looking for friends wherever they can pocket 'em to, especially those disaffected with America, to balance US power regionally or in international organizations, where it's one country, one vote.

As for the Latin Americans, they don't mind having the Chinese and Russians compete for their affection. Intensive courting can result in favorable trade deals, aid, concessionary loans and political support.

Their no-strings-attached ties undermine Washington's efforts to advance free markets, human rights and democracy in the region--not a high priority for Moscow or Beijing.

Conventional wisdom says our sway is declining in this hemisphere. If true, that's bad news. Since geography is destiny, maintaining - or regaining - America's influence in the region will be key for the next US president.

Meddling by Russia and China won't help.

Peter Brookes, Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Economy

First Appeared in Real Clear Politics