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Stern of the Chinese ship the"Y M Orchid" cargo ship.  Marcel Crozet/ILO/Flickr
Stern of the Chinese ship the"Y M Orchid" cargo ship. Marcel Crozet/ILO/Flickr
April 5, 2023

Multi-level Engagement Between China and Latin America and the Caribbean



The approaches of Latin American and Caribbean states toward China are often filtered through a number of considerations: a country's compatibility with Chinese trade and investment priorities, need for products that China, diplomatic proximity to the United States and/or Taiwan, and prior experiences with China and its diaspora. 

Isabel Bernhard and Pepe Zhang join the U.S.-China Nexus to shed light on the nuances in relations to China across Latin American and Caribbean. They tackle the context in which China policy becomes politicized in domestic election cycles and the role that the China-CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] Forum plays in regional ties.


Eleanor M. Albert: We are joined by two guests to talk about China’s relationship to the Americas.

Pepe Zhang is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, where he leads the center’s policy work on regional economic issues. Zhang also manages the center’s China-Latin America portfolio. Prior to joining the Atlantic Council, Zhang worked at the Inter-American Development Bank, focusing on international trade and investment promotion, entrepreneurship, and technology in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Our second guest is Isabel Bernhard assistant director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. Prior to joining the Atlantic Council, Bernhard interned at the U.S. Department of State, the Inter-American Dialogue, and the municipal government of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She was also a four-year Spanish interpreter for the Boston Housing Authority. She speaks Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin Chinese, and Taiwanese.

[A quick note for our listeners, this episode was recorded before Honduras formally established relations with the People’s Republic of China and severed its ties with Taiwan in late March.] 

Pepe and Isabel, welcome to the show!

Isabel Bernhard: Thank you for having us.

Pepe Zhang: Thank you.

Eleanor M. Albert: To kick this off, I wanted to ask about how you entered this space, looking at the relationship between China and Latin and South America. Let's start with Isabel and then we'll turn to Pepe.

Isabel Bernhard: I started by chance and then by curiosity. My mom's family is from Taiwan, and I grew up there off and on until I was about 11, when I moved back to the [United] States. Then separately in college and grad school, I studied Latin American politics. I was interested by it. I did some internships and lived in the region for a little bit. And it gradually came to me that there was a way of combining my background with my interests and that there was definitely a space for analyzing Chinese activity in Latin America, as well as Taiwanese activity.

Eleanor M. Albert: Pepe, how did you come to look at China and the Americas?

Pepe Zhang: Thanks. Thanks, Eleanor, for the question and for having me and Isa on the podcast.

Definitely some similarity with Isa. I think it's a confluence of professional, personal skills, and interest in generally what's happening in the world. At least when I would start doing work in policy and research, there was, and I think there still is, a huge demand for analysis in this growing relationship between China and Latin America. To me, one of the challenges for understanding what's happening between these two regions has been the prerequisite, almost, that you have to have somewhat decent knowledge about what's happening in those two regions individually.

I was pretty lucky to have the skills, having spent some time in both regions, speak[ing] both languages, and thought that might be a helpful way to make something useful out of it and spend more time doing the China-Latin America study stuff.

Eleanor M. Albert: Fantastic. Let's start digging into these different regions and how they interact with one another. Geographically, China is a relatively long way away from the Americas, but it hasn't stopped it from being more influential. I wondered if you could both give me an idea of how China's regional presence is viewed in Latin and South America. Are there differences among the region's countries? I would presume things are perhaps different in, say, larger economies like Argentina and Brazil. You then have the relationship between China and Venezuela, then you have the Caribbean nations. How is this playing out in terms of how China's presence is viewed within these domestic contexts?

Isabel Bernhard: The first thing to note is that there really is no monolithic regional consensus on how China's presence is seen, as you've noted. But there are certainly some characteristics of countries that make them see China differently. And we can identify a couple before drilling in.

The most prominent one is probably a country's compatibility with Chinese trade and investment priorities. Then hot on the heels of that is a country's need for products that China might provide faster than the U.S., or a country's diplomatic proximity to the U.S. and/or Taiwan. Then of tertiary importance, a country's historic diasporic ties with China, or whether a country has been "burned" before by prior experiences.

Cycling back to the headline here, the compatibility with Chinese trade investment: we see that plenty of countries in Latin America have agriculture and primary product exports, chief among them Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, whether that's soybeans, beef, iron ore, petroleum. These are top exports for China and certainly make these countries more disposed to see China in a positive light.

For countries with lithium reserves, whether that's Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, those countries are also interested in keeping close ties with China and deepening potentially China's regional involvement. We saw that this January. Bolivia picked a Chinese consortium to invest over $1 billion in developing lithium deposits, which is an eye-popping number.

Then, of course, the country's appetite for infrastructure projects that China can provide in the region. We know that Bogota in Columbia is one of the most congested cities in the world, and that's a city that's been looking at a metro project for years. China stepped up and has begun constructing it, which was certainly filling an appetite and a need in that space.

We also have Panama, which used to be potentially a bigger fan of Chinese involvement in the region. Although after the subsequent president took power in 2019, there was a pause and a suspension of several Chinese projects due to contract and completion.

Then thinking about maybe a country's need for products that China provides faster than the U.S. This really came to the fore during the [COVID-19] pandemic when we saw China's vaccine diplomacy, mask diplomacy in full swing. We, at the Atlantic Council, published a report on this in February of last year. The U.S. was very active in donations, but it was seen as too little too late, even though the number of donations ultimately surpassed the number of Chinese donations and Chinese sales as well. For countries like Mexico, which needed vaccines and other pandemic supplies as early as spring of 2021, it was China that stepped up, not the U.S. That certainly played a role in Mexico and other countries' perceptions of Chinese involvement in the region.

Then just putting a quick footnote on the other small points, a country's diplomatic proximity to the U.S. and/or Taiwanwe see it at countries like Venezuela and Cuba, which are neither strongly allied with the U.S. nor with Taiwan, [and] have potentially a stronger inclination towards China. Paraguay, of course, which is a strong ally of the U.S. and Taiwan, is one of the exceptions in the region that seems to be more strongly anti-China, although that may be changing with the upcoming elections.

Then, countries like Peru, Brazil, Panama also have strong diasporic ties to China that might be relevant for chambers of commerce, friendship associations, Confucius Institute staff, and other elements of soft power.

And whether or not a country's been burned by China before, that really is a variable that's hard to define. The country that comes to mind would be Ecuador because of a hydroelectric dam that ended up having pretty significant structural flaws early on. But Ecuador is also one of the countries that signed a free trade agreement with China. So it's hard to tell whether that experience was really enough to significantly color the relationship with China.

Eleanor M. Albert: Wow, what a tour de force. Pepe, do you want to add anything?

Pepe Zhang: It's hard to add anything to that very comprehensive response by Isa, but maybe two quick points. One is related to the first point that Isa made about broader economic priorities. Something that I'd recently written about, with Felipe Larraín, who is a former Chilean finance minister about this issue, Taking a high-level view of whether some of the main areas of Chinese economic engagement with the region, and we identified four: trade, investment, official credit, official lending from China, and we talked about finally what we consider infrastructure. That includes, for example, the participation of Chinese construction companies in infrastructure concessions in Latin American and Caribbean. That could be a helpful way to frame some of these issues, adding additional nuance to what Isa has already said.

Second, since you mentioned in your question the Caribbean, applying the framework that I just mentioned, often when folks talk about Latin America, in any context, usually Caribbean is seen as a footnote. But at the Atlantic Council we certainly take the Caribbean part very seriously. We have our Caribbean initiative; we do a lot of work on that. And having recently come back from a few trips to Guyana where there's an energy boom coming up, and from Barbados where it's a more, I think, traditional Caribbean tourism-based economy, I think there's different levels and ways to engage China and certainly echo what Isa said: there's no monolithic pattern so to speak, but something that we can draw from.

Eleanor M. Albert: Great. Within that, there were definitely references to the policy areas in which China is either reaching out or vice versa. You have countries in the Americas who are reaching out to China for opportunities. I was wondering if you could provide a quick lay-down of what are the policy areas that bind China to countries in Latin and South America? And then are there wedge issues? Is it just trade and investment and infrastructure? Are there other areas that are either creating linkages, or are there political elements that sour some of these things?

Pepe Zhang: I'll say that most of the bind issues, and certainly from my perspective, the most important bind issues fall under the category of something that Isa had mentioned previously. We talked about trade, we talked about investment, and we talked a little bit about lending and the infrastructure space.

The way I would frame this perhaps, in the context of this question, is that to me the bind issues really are just the fact that Latin America and a lot of Caribbean nations have provided resources that are so important to power China's domestic growth, which is obviously the utmost priority from a Chinese perspective. Then again, if you think about this from a trade perspective or through their lens of investment, Chinese demand for some of these productsminerals, commodities, and everything in that spaceis what has been propelling the growing trade investment linkages between these two regions.

So once again, we can talk about copper from Chile and Peru, we can talk about iron ore from Brazil, we can talk about animal protein, beef, for example, from Brazil and Uruguay. We can even talk about soybean from Brazil, which once again goes to the animal protein piece as China tried to secure its own self-sufficiency in producing more animal protein domestically. That's perhaps the most important thing I'll highlight.

But certainly, you're right, Eleanor. I think that there's other elements in play here. Two ways I would think about that. One is the strategic and the diplomatic and foreign policy angle. That's an increasingly important element. We see that not just in the bilateral context of what's happening between China and Latin America and the Caribbean. We can also think about how the U.S. dynamics plays into that.

We can think about also in the broader global context; there's been a lot of conversation, for example, about South-South collaboration. A lot of the rhetoric around China and Latin America and Caribbean relations has been framed at least at the South-South level. So that's something to keep in mind.

I do want to bring the Latin American perspective as well, because earlier when we talked about some of these binding issues; we talked about what are some of the issues that bind China to Latin America and the Caribbean. But I want to approach this the other way around as well.

From a regional perspective, when we look at trade, for example, the importance that we discussed earlier about China in the trade space, that is certainly something that Latin American, Caribbean countries think about. It's not just that China needs these resources, but also when the region looks around the world, China is a pretty irreplaceable consumer market in terms of scale and opportunities it represents.

Some of the other main pillars of Chinese economic engagement with the region: the region certainly sees financing opportunities in China. Previously, it was mostly official credit lending. That's died down quite a bit in recent years. But we still see pretty robust investment flows coming to the region, and surprisingly so in many ways.  Even vaccines. We're seeing new avenues of China-Latin American, Caribbean engagement, and that's something that I think folks need to keep an eye on.

Now, moving on to the wedge issues that you mentioned, and I think that's something that's been quite under-reported, at least from Washington's perspective. When we broadly break down this relationship into the binding issues or the wedge issues, most countries in the region still tend to see China in a more positive, opportunities-oriented way.

But the wedge issues are certainly emerging. Just to mention a couple of things. One, for example, increasingly what we see is something that comes with that growing trade relationship. This is not unique to Latin America and the Caribbean region. Any sort of trade deals related to Chinaand we've certainly seen this play out in the context of U.S.-China relationsit's growing concerns about the industrialization, and growing in concerns about the impact of Chinese imports on the domestic labor markets, manufacturing opportunities, and employment. That's something that we've seen more and more in the regional contexts. The most recent FTA [free trade agreement] signed between China and Latin America, the one between China and Ecuador, which is still in its finalization phase, to be technical about it. But that's certainly a major sticking point. The conversation about protecting domestic labor markets [is] front to center for them. So that's the first wedge issue I will mention.

The second thing that's been gaining a lot of attention is illegal fishing, or to be precise, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishingIUU fishing. We've seen Chinese fleets or fleets owned by Chinese companies around some of the maritime areas around certain Latin American countries in the coastal zone. That's something that's been gaining a lot of international attention, not just from a Latin American perspective.

And finally, I think this is something that we've seen across other developing regions. We've seen some environmental concerns and labor concerns about the Chinese companies or projects in the region. So I would also put that into the wedge category.

And perhaps just to finalize this point, I know that it's a helpful framework to think through some of these issues, whether thinking them as a wedge issue or a bind issue, but there's obviously a whole wide range of issues in between that's neither wedge or bind. Not everything is black and white. There's a lot of the grayness in between.

A lot of countries in the region will have different reactions and deal with China differently, even though it comes to similar issues. One example I'll give is perhaps science and technology collaboration. There's for example, some concerns from the U.S. side, from DC, about growing Chinese presence in aerospace, in the space stations in Latin America and the Caribbean. And there we have an interesting contrast. In Argentina, the Las Lajas Space Station, that one we've seen the Argentine authorities relatively unbothered by Chinese activities. On the other hand, on the Chilean side, we have a Swedish-managed space station, and a few years ago they removed access for the China team due to some geopolitical and security concerns.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's really helpful. Isabel, I want to give you the opportunity to enrich that at all if you'd like.

Isabel Bernhard: [I’ll] just add one small point, which is that a topic can transition between being a bind or a wedge or somewhere in between issue over time. Part of the fishing topic may well fit into that category. As Pepe mentioned, IUU fishing is definitely a wedge issue. At the same time, one of Argentina's exports to China is crustaceans. So in that sense, they're also bound by a different angle of the same challenge or the same topic that's causing them problems.

Eleanor M. Albert: I think that one other framework to think about this spectrum of bind and wedge is also to filter it through different levels of engagement, because a lot of these relationships aren't necessarily just state-to-state. It could be state to a local level, China to a more regional level within some of these countries. But then you also have different receptions between the state level and then domestic publics.

So, I wanted to look a little bit into domestic politics in some of these countries and see whether there were instances where there are positions or stances that are taken by Latin American leaders vis-à-vis their China policy that then become politicized. And how does that come about? What are the manifestations of that?

Isabel Bernhard: Once of the main stances on China that seems to keep coming up, especially around Latin American and Caribbean election cycles, is whether to diplomatically recognize China or Taiwan. And this is obviously only true for a certain subset of countries, but it does seem to be a recurrent theme. And secondarily, as Pepe alluded to earlier, another topic that also is election-heavy is the idea of de-industrialization. And I can give a couple examples of each.

Paraguay will have upcoming elections in April [2023], and already we know that the election results will determine Paraguay's future alliance with either China or Taiwan. There's been plenty of discourse about that. One of the main opposition candidates has flat out declared that he will move Paraguay into a diplomatic alignment with China and drop Taiwan. That is definitely on the regional radar.

But also, Honduras is almost a case study in contrast because President Xiomara Castro pledged to establish diplomatic relations with China. But as soon as she entered office, the topic seems to have died down quite a lot. That's sort of the chief examples of politicizing China’s, or implicitly Taiwan's, relationship to the region during election cycles.

But on the second point of industrialization and de-industrialization, Brazil definitely came to the fore as well. Last year, Brazil had a presidential election. In this election and the prior one, the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and his sons were quite strongly anti-China, and then became increasingly pragmatic once they were governing, and conciliatory towards China once they sort of re-understood the magnitude of those economic ties.

And the recent Brazilian election, of course, talked about de-industrialization as well. Even though the current President Lula [da Silva] is slightly more conciliatory towards China in certain aspects, there's no doubt that he and his economic advisors understand the delicate balance there.

My own speculation is that Latin American, Caribbean politicians politicize each other's stances towards China, not just for domestic electoral gain, but possibly to draw larger international interest or promises of U.S. assistance if their country becomes more diplomatically aloof towards China. So going back to Paraguay, the current President [Mario] Abdo actually put a price tag on what it would cost to remain an ally of Taiwan, and that number was $1 billion. That immediately got walked back once there was some diplomatic outcry, but it underscores some of the backroom thinking that has to happen from a pragmatic standpoint to understand when and how to politicize this relationship with China.

Eleanor M. Albert: That's great. I think this is a really good opportunity to bring in some third-party factors. Given the geographic proximity with the United States, I'm curious how the U.S. relationship to the region shapes considerations by Latin and South American countries vis-à-vis China. Obviously, this can fall on a wide spectrum. We talked a little bit about how it can be invoked in the politicization in election cycles, but I'm also curious if the dynamics mirror the kind of roller coaster of ties that a lot of Latin American countries have had with the United States and how that fits into China coming in and being a larger player.

Pepe Zhang: Thanks, Eleanor. It's an excellent question. And it's an interesting one because in DC usually we get asked a similar question, but the other way around. Mostly I get asked, for example, how does growing Chinese presence in the region affect U.S. interests being in DC? But your question is equally important and valuable.

In the last couple of decades at least, the U.S. hasn't always made Latin America, Caribbean a centerpiece of its foreign policy. As a result of that, there is a sense of perceived neglect, I would say, in which countries in the region felt like they were being taken for granted. Even when we're going through this period where there’s a lot of attention on [the] Middle East, there was a lot of attention about pivot to Asia, I think a lot of Latin American, Caribbean countries felt like they didn't necessarily receive the level of attention that they deserve from the United States.

So, on one hand, you have this perceived decline in U.S. engagement. And on the other hand, speaking to your rollercoaster, the region saw growing interest and certainly this explosive economic relationship with China. The one data point I always give, at least in recent months, is that if you look at the data, the trade relationship between China and Latin American and the Caribbean multiplied by 25 times in under 25 years. Starting from a very low base, but something to think about.

In addition to that, what countries see isn't just the comparison of U.S. and Chinese engagement with the region, but also increasingly some sort of a direct competition or competitive dynamics between U.S. and China. That happens both on a global level, and increasingly in Latin America as well.

One example of that is we see China coming up quite a bit in some of U.S. official speeches addressing the region and regional officials, and vice versa as well. This speaks to your question about how these dynamics bilaterally can maybe interact with each other.

Building on that, as countries in the region discover that there is that competitive dynamics happening in the world and playing out in Latin America, combined with the fact that countries fundamentally don't want to choose sides between the U.S. and China, because if you ask them, they really want to be able to work with both parties in ways and areas that make sense. So that discovery and with this strategic thinking, I think that leads to a certain conclusion, which is that U.S.-China competitive dynamic, in a way, it's almost a game. It's a game that if the countries are able to navigate it successfully, they can get more attention from the U.S., from China, and they can get the best deal out of both sides and advance their own national interest.

If you ask me, there are a lot of countries are doing a great job at that. We see examples across the countries. The Paraguay example, the price tag that the president put out is certainly an example how countries are thinking about this in a strategic way, thinking about the intersection of these bilateral relationships in the way of using them as bargaining chips with each other and against each other.

Another example I'll mention is Ecuador. Last December I was speaking at a conference, the China-Latin American, Caribbean Business Summit, hosted by Ecuador last year. And we have very high-level participation from the Ecuadorian government. The president was there; three ministers were there. And this is the moment where the technical completion of the FTA was done.

A week later, [Ecuadorian] President Lasso traveled to Washington, met with President [Joe] Biden, met with Congressional representatives. I thought it was a good example how countries [are] really trying to get the most out of both relationships.

Of course, the other examples would include something that Isa mentioned earlier about Honduras. There's no shortage of examples of what countries have been trying to do to advance their own interests in this context with growing U.S. and China competitive dynamics.

Isabel Bernhard I would just add a quick foot stomp on a couple points that Pepe made, which is that even though U.S. foreign policy and the broader relationship towards the region has been perceived in waves and has seemed like a rollercoaster. It doesn't necessarily have to be that way. In fact, the U.S. has been doing a lot of great, maybe under the radar initiatives to the average U.S. citizen that certainly don't go unnoticed in Latin America and the Caribbean.

To just name one, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief [HA/DR] is a field in which the U.S. is very active, and Latin America and the Caribbean. We're currently finalizing a report with an Atlantic Council Distinguished Fellow, who used to command SOUTHCOM [United States Southern Command] and what we're learning in the process is that the U.S.HA/DR contributions have been numerous, have been consistent, have been well-received, have been in partnership with local countries, and have been strongly emphasizing that capacity-building long-term component that is an investment in the region. That implicitly may contrast with some of the more short-term, more visible, but without follow-through, actions that China might be doing from time to time.

Eleanor M. Albert: One of the things that often comes out as I've been doing some of these conversations about China's relationship in different parts of the world is how the U.S. fits into it. As much as these competitive dynamics may be emerging, that in some ways provides a lot of countries in these different parts of the world to have more agency in figuring out how they want to engage with these two great powers.

I want to take on a little bit of a regional approach. Every country has its own domestic imperatives, but there are some multilateral channels, and there has been the China-CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. It's this forum that has been around since 2015. This is part of China's set of China plus region groupings. Is this a useful tool for either China or for the members of this CELAC community?

Pepe Zhang: I think before answering that question, it's good to bring back something you said earlier that's so valuable, Eleanor. You talked about different levels of Chinese engagement with the region and whether that's country-to-country level, country-to-state, or subnational level. And here, if you think about subnational as one level below the country level, the national level, then this regional/multilateral level is almost one level above.  And it's certainly an interesting area to watch.

In terms of its usefulness, I have my own mixed feelings about that. I'll try to describe in what ways it's useful and not so useful from a Chinese perspective, and then go through the same kind of list for the Latin American and the Caribbean perspective, again, trying to bring in perspectives from both sides.

On the Chinese side, it is useful in theory, at least, because it is an institutionalized mechanism of collaboration. Usually every three years, when they convene, there is a declaration coming out among participating countries after the forum. That itself is an accomplishment in the sense that we've seen globally, it's just hard to reach consensus and have leaders sign onto a declaration. So the usefulness I think is there.

I do think though, sometimes, the usefulness is pretty limited in the sense that like a lot of the other global summits, we see the declaration, but we don't necessarily see a lot of concrete or convincing or tangible results. Certainly, it's very difficult to measure progress, especially if some of the declarations include language that is general and pretty vague and doesn't specify some of the details that will be necessary to even measure progress.

The other thing I'll say is, from a Chinese perspective, China usually prefers to engage bilaterally with a lot of countries that are part of CELAC, instead of multilaterally. I think the multilateral space again is important level of engagement that's very understudied. But from where I'm standing, I see that more as a complement to bilateral engagement, the country level or other levels that we see. When you work in a multilateral regional setting, you lose some of the country-specific nuances. This is where the more in-depth bilateral engagement comes through.

Now, turning to the Latin American Caribbean perspective, we're looking at a hugely diverse region, and each country has its different sets of relationship and interest and priorities with China.

One generalization I'll make here is that this China-CELAC forum, as it tends to happen with a lot of these multilateral forums, tends to be more useful for smaller countries in the region than the bigger ones. The smaller countries, on the bilateral basis usually they have greater trouble getting China's attention, but the multilateral space gives an opportunity to do that.

For example, when it comes to bigger countries like Brazil, the biggest economy in the region, China and Brazil have a bilateral, high-level working group to resolve trade and other issues. On the Chinese side, it's chaired by the one of the vice premiers, and on the Brazilian side it's usually chaired by the Brazilian vice president. That sort of high-level bilateral mechanism doesn't exist in most countries in the region vis-à-vis China. That in a way speaks to the different levels of importance China places on some of these relationships.

The second thing I'll say is something you alluded to in your question, which is when you think about regional strategy towards China, I really don't think there is a clearly defined, collective regional strategy towards China. That once again speaks to the diversity that exists within the region and the agency that different countries have, the different priorities.

My understanding is that, usually, to produce a declaration, the process has been that the Chinese side will solicit ideas from countries, and they usually don't get a whole lot. Then they will propose their priorities and issues for countries to sign on. Eventually they meet somewhere in between.

Finally, I'll say that CELAC in and by itself is a pretty useful mechanism from a Latin American, Caribbean perspective, but mostly for internal coordination for regional issues. I don't think a lot of countries look at the CELAC forum as a main avenue or tool to engage China.

Perhaps going forward, one final footnote, is that the last edition of the China-CELAC forum was held at the end of 2021, if I'm not mistaken. It took place in virtual format because this was still when [the] pandemic was raging, at least in many parts of the region. The next forum should happen in 2024, three years from the last one. And that one should return to the in-person format.

In a way, I'm almost drawing a parallel with what the U.S. had last year with the Summit of the Americas, which is such an important high-level regional forum. That one was hosted by the U.S. for the first time in a very long time. We saw some very interesting diplomatic and other accomplishments on the sidelines of and as a part of the summit.

So it'll be interesting to see if this return to in-person format can actually advance some of the diplomatic objectives that both China and the Latin American, Caribbean nations will have through this forum.

Eleanor M. Albert: Great. To conclude, I wanted to ask about short, medium term. And so this is not to have you be large prognosticators, to be forecasters, but I wanted to see where you see the Sino-Latin American relationship going. And if you had to pick just one aspect of the relationship to watch in that short to medium term, what would it be, and why is that something that you're watching?

Isabel Bernhard: For me, whatever direction the Sino-Latin America relationship is going in, it will almost certainly be mediated through education diplomacy. And whether that's through Confucius Institutes, as we briefly alluded to, maybe some Chinese companies sponsoring STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] scholarships, other exchange programs, or bilingual public schools, it really seems that we're watching a generation in Latin America and the Caribbean grow up with close to dual access to Western Hemispheric culture and the Sinosphere. So personally, I'd be curious to see how that affects public or private sector approaches to China in those countries 10 to 15 years from now when those former students are in leadership roles.

Pepe Zhang: Absolutely agree. Since we talked about different levels of engagement, I want to see what's going to happen going forward on a multilateral level. I think the subnational level that we also quickly referred to, that's a growing area of U.S. engagement with the region. [The] State Department, I believe it was last year, created a specific dedicated entity, a team, for that purpose. There’s going to be a City Summit in Denver in April, so it’ll be interesting to see how the China angle plays out or doesn’t play out within that context.

I'm always interested in trade issues. A few years ago, we put out a projection of the trade relationship between China and Latin America and the Caribbean. We projected out to 2035 and through different scenarios. So curious to see if that indeed evolves in ways that we thought it could evolve.

Finally, lithium is the name of the game in this global energy transition that everyone continues to talk about. Regardless of China, the region has such huge potential, opportunity in front of it. Whether or not it can take advantage of that opportunity in a responsible way, that's a very difficult question. But given Chinese dominance in a lot of the battery supply chains and Chinese interest in this energy transition both domestically and the global level, the U.S. is paying a lot more attention to related issues, including legislation that we've seen coming out in recent years. It's an area to follow, and I think this will be a good area within the U.S., Latin America, Caribbean and China triangle.

Eleanor M. Albert: Thank you both so much. It was a fantastic conversation.

Isabel Bernhard: Thank you for having us.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Georgetown University.


The U.S.-China Nexus is created, produced, and edited by me, Eleanor M. Albert. Our music is from Universal Production Music. Special thanks to Shimeng Tong, Tuoya Wulan, and Amy Vander Vliet. For more initiative programming, videos, and links to events, visit our website at And don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.