While China Eyes Colombia, the United States remains AWOL in Latin America
While China Eyes Colombia, the United States remains AWOL in Latin America

While China Eyes Colombia, the United States remains AWOL in Latin America

Governments around the world have launched major spending programs to stimulate their economies following the devastating effects of the pandemic. Latin America is no exception, and it is both a risk and an opportunity for the United States. If Washington wants to maintain its influence in America and ward off Beijing’s accelerated penetration of the region, it must focus on helping the region’s economic recovery. The Biden administration rightly pushes for global investment in infrastructure with its Build Back Better World program, a direct response to China’s Strategic Belt and Road Initiative. But it is not enough to pass a program in Congress. Washington needs a concrete game plan to implement the program and start making inroads into Chinese intervention in Latin America.

One country where risks and opportunities are particularly visible is Colombia. Supported by Beijing with state aid, Chinese companies have won major infrastructure projects, including the long-awaited Bogotá metro, Bogotá regional railway, many Colombian 4G and 5G infrastructure projects and a large new gold mine in Antioquia. Many of these projects came after Colombian President Iván Duque’s visit to Beijing in 2019, when he promoted Chinese investment in Colombia. He seeks closer ties and has suggested that Colombia can formally join the Belt and Road Initiative before leaving office. If he does – possibly by decree – it would only clarify the gap that the United States is not filling.

Hardly hit by the pandemic, Colombia has not had the luxury of being picky about its partners. With high budget deficits and rising government debt, the country lost its hard-hitting investment-grade credit ratings in 2021. And while Colombia is expected to report GDP growth of more than 9 percent last year, the emergence of the omicron variant threatens to hamper economic activity again. The need to grow the economy and increase employment is crucial with an unemployment rate close to 11 percent in a workforce of almost 25 million.

Governments around the world have launched major spending programs to stimulate their economies following the devastating effects of the pandemic. Latin America is no exception, and it is both a risk and an opportunity for the United States. If Washington wants to maintain its influence in America and ward off Beijing’s accelerated penetration of the region, it must focus on helping the region’s economic recovery. The Biden administration rightly pushes for global investment in infrastructure with its Build Back Better World program, a direct response to China’s Strategic Belt and Road Initiative. But it is not enough to pass a program in Congress. Washington needs a concrete game plan to implement the program and start making inroads into Chinese intervention in Latin America.

One country where risks and opportunities are particularly visible is Colombia. Supported by Beijing with state aid, Chinese companies have won major infrastructure projects, including the long-awaited Bogotá metro, Bogotá regional railway, many Colombian 4G and 5G infrastructure projects and a large new gold mine in Antioquia. Many of these projects came after Colombian President Iván Duque’s visit to Beijing in 2019, when he promoted Chinese investment in Colombia. He seeks closer ties and has suggested that Colombia can formally join the Belt and Road Initiative before leaving office. If he does – possibly by decree – it would only clarify the gap that the United States is not filling.

Hardly hit by the pandemic, Colombia has not had the luxury of being picky about its partners. With high budget deficits and rising government debt, the country lost its hard-hitting investment-grade credit ratings in 2021. And while Colombia is expected to report GDP growth of more than 9 percent last year, the emergence of the omicron variant threatens to hamper economic activity again. The need to grow the economy and increase employment is crucial with an unemployment rate close to 11 percent in a workforce of almost 25 million.

Latin America has not been a priority for Biden’s foreign policy teams, and Colombia even less so, as Washington’s biggest concern remains migration from Mexico and Central America. It does not help that the relationship between Duque and Biden is cool, not least due to open support from prominent members of Duque’s conservative party Centro Democrático to former US President Donald Trump and the Florida Republicans in the 2020 US election. The critical role of the Latino vote in Florida understandably condemned the Democrats’ actions as serious foreign election interference.

Last year’s deadly clashes between police and protesters across Colombia – which was convicted of The UN and others – did not help the image of the government in Washington either. However, since Joe Biden became president, Duque has tried to reconcile. He quickly endorsed Biden’s international agenda, made new commitments to climate policy and launched renewed efforts to implement the 2016 peace agreement between the government and Colombia’s main left-wing guerrilla group.

Washington now has the opportunity to respond. Despite friction, Colombia remains the strongest American ally in Latin America, a region divided by political upheavals and exposed to China’s expanding geopolitical ambitions. Colombia’s domestic human rights abuses continue to hamper democracy. The country ranks 14th among Latin American nations on Freedom House’s annual survey of the state of democracy around the world. Nevertheless, this is a marked improvement over the violence and human rights violations just a few decades ago. And as democracy deteriorates elsewhere in the region, Colombia is among the few countries pushing Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela for greater democratization, promoting regional cooperation in the fight against drugs and supporting the energy transition agenda. Colombia has also taken unprecedented steps to accept and integrate more than 1.9 million refugees fleeing an oppressive regime and collapsing economy in neighboring Venezuela. Colombia has served as a relief valve to the broader migration problems seen in the region, and many of these Venezuelans would otherwise be heading north.

Colombia’s climate policy goals combined with the country’s need for continued economic development require large-scale infrastructure investments. The country aims to reduce deforestation to 100,000 hectares by 2025 – half the current level – and 50,000 by 2030. Lack of resources, geographical barriers, inefficient institutions and poor planning underlie Colombia’s lack of quality roads, ports, canals, railways and navigable rivers. The last three Colombian administrations have made a strong push to change that, including by recruiting Chinese investment. Under former President Alvaro Uribe, the country opened new oil and gas bidding rounds. Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, promoted a major infrastructure package. Duque is continuing on this course and expanding the initiative to include ports and railways, while also pursuing renewable energy and hydrogen projects.

While the United States is passive, Colombia is becoming more dependent on Chinese funding and entrepreneurs as a source of local job creation. For that to change, part of the burden lies with Colombia: Although Bogota has improved the regulatory environment and the public procurement process, it must still make the procurement processes more accessible to international capital. Failure to do so will only continue to favor the Chinese model, which is less concerned about the quality and transparency of public procurement processes. Greater US bilateral support and funding will greatly open the door for many US companies in the private sector.

In addition, the United States can help Colombia strengthen the implementation of the peace agreement by funding infrastructure projects in areas of Colombia affected by the conflict, which will help stabilize the country and unlock much broader economic development. All of this would be huge gains for Colombia, the region and the United States. Failure to actively support Colombia’s ongoing infrastructure projects will only push it closer to China. After its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan and in the face of current tensions with Russia and other powers, the United States could use a foreign policy victory.

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