China is Untangling the Latin American Spaghetti Bowl

The Western Hemisphere was instrumental in developing ideas and norms around international and regional governance. In fact, since the independence period, leaders in the Americas have sought to develop collective governance mechanisms. However, due to differing preferences, ideological schisms, and leadership styles, the region has seen the proliferation of regional governance mechanisms rather than the consolidation of these mechanisms into a unified regional body. This has created a spaghetti bowl of interconnected countries tied together through different regional bodies — often with the same countries participating in multiple organizations that nominally serve the same purpose. While experts on regional affairs have bemoaned the challenges of having so many regional organizations — going so far as referring to it as “meaningless”– China has found a way to navigate these complicated waters and even their own system to channel their interests in the region.

China has sought to deepen its engagement in the Americas. Chinese trade with the region has grown exponentially over the past 20 years. At the same time, China leveraged “checkbook diplomacy” to ensure support for its One China policy and recognition of Beijing over Taipei as the seat of the nation. Since 2000, six countries in the Latin America and Caribbean region have shifted recognition to Beijing, but seven out of the 12 countries in the world that still recognize Taiwan are in the region. Paralleling these efforts, China also sought to engage with the Western Hemisphere through regional organizations. China became an observer of the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI) in 1994 and began seeking membership and engagement with other regional bodies. Today, China is a member of two regional organizations — the Inter-American Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank — a permanent observer in six organizations, and has active engagement with eleven more.

While the term “spaghetti bowl” is typically reserved for conversations surrounding overlapping trade agreements, in the Americas the term is apt for discussing regional governance. There is a complex system of regional organizations with overlapping memberships and mandates, creating similar issues to those seen in harmonizing trade agendas. In fact, there are over 30 regional organizations, forums, and initiatives within the Americas. This large number of organizations creates various challenges for regional governance. Due to the number of organizations and their overlapping mandates, countries are able to seek out the forum that best suits their particular needs while avoiding the norms and regulations of regional bodies that they are members of, but whose position may be at odds with their interests — all while claiming multilateral legitimacy. This process, often called “contested multilateralism,” undermines the ability of regional and international organizations to hold members accountable or enforce multilateral governance. 

The complex network of regional organizations has provided space for China to engage in the region in important ways. In the early years of Chinese engagement in regional organizations, engaging with regional bodies was an important way in which the country could interact with the region despite not having diplomatic recognition. It also allowed China to engage in multiple forums where the United States does not engage — or at least does not have a formal role — so as to increase its influence in regional affairs without upsetting the United States and framing itself as a counterweight to U.S. imperialism in the region. At the same time, China has engaged through organizations that include the United States to showcase its commitment to the region. These actions have allowed China to deepen its ties to the region and to gain additional economic advantage in key spaces, particularly vis-à-vis the United States, which is often accused of ignoring the region. 

While the spaghetti bowl of regional organizations has created unique opportunities for China to engage in the region, it also generates drawbacks. As for other countries, the mix of organizations creates challenges for Chinese engagement and the acceptance of Chinese preferences as well as multiple channels for countries to combat Chinese influence. Indeed, the United States has actively criticized China’s role in the region and raised concerns over Chinese engagement in regional organizations, in particular through the Inter-American Development Bank where U.S. legislation is currently being considered to limit Chinese influence. However, China has developed a key mechanism to handle this fractured network of regional organizations in the Americas: the China-CELAC Forum, formed with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

When the China-CELAC Forum first met in January 2015, China created a primary mechanism through which it could engage and established clear rules and objectives surrounding this engagement. One key element of this was pulling together different subforums of engagement in different areas that allowed China to engage with different government, private sector, and civil society actors from across the region. These also include areas for topical cooperation in science and technology, agriculture, and infrastructure. While the forum itself serves as a platform for leaders from across the Americas to engage with their Chinese counterparts, one of the most important elements of the forum is that it has streamlined Chinese multilateral engagement in the region into a single identifiable channel.

China’s multipronged approach to engaging with regional organizations in the Americas has allowed the country to engage with Latin America and the Caribbean in innovative ways and permitted China to expand its presence across the region. This has led to growing concern among U.S. policymakers. While regional governance has always been challenging in the Western Hemisphere, China’s presence and U.S. concerns over China’s role may further complicate Inter-American cooperation. Addressing the challenges facing the Americas will require multilateral and regional solutions. Leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean as well as from the United States must seek mechanisms that will allow for greater and streamlined cooperation within the Hemisphere just as China has sought to develop these mechanisms for its engagement with the region. 

Funding for this article and its accompanying report was provided by the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University. For more on Chinese engagement in regional organizations, please read the full report here.

The Diplomat

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