Saturday, May 22, 2021

"Sleepwalking Toward the Caribbean": U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Event, "China in Latin America and the Caribbean"

Video recording HERE


When it comes to the performance of foreign policy in Latin America for mass consumption, American elites usually come late to the party; that is when they can be bothered to rouse enough enough to attend in the first place.  Latin America tends to be a side event in the great circus that is the status driven and siloed world of official American engagement abroad. However late they are, though, it is always to be encouraged when the great beacons of public bureaucratic attention finally turns publicly, to developing situations that might have been better attended to much earlier. As Rasheed Griffith noted in the opening of his testimony:

For decades the U.S. has been sleepwalking towards the Caribbean. Recently, foreign policy discussions around China-Caribbean engagement have been uniformly skewed towards speculation on China’s intentions in the Caribbean. Every time the U.S. perceives a Communist threat in the Caribbean a new acronym is unilaterally created. When Cuba sided with the Soviet Union, President Kennedy created the AIP (Alliance for Progress) in 1961. After the Marxist-led revolution in Grenada, President Reagan created the CBI (Caribbean Basin Initiative) in 1983. Now with the increased engagement of China in the region, President Biden created the SALPIE (Small and Less Populous Island Economies) Initiative in 2021. But given the precedent of previous acronym-initiatives there is justification for not setting high expectations. (Rasheed Griffith, Testimony)

Worse, American policy appears ossified, trapped in a loop of conceptual constraints that appeared fresh in the 1930s-1960s and are now painfully obsolete. It does serve institutional actors well enough though, especially in their internal and domestic battles. It does not serve the Republic.

Nonetheless, the public performance of danger/challenges/concern--like the delivery of news--serves not just to manage mass opinion (in anticipation of the need to avoid discontent in the face of anticipated policy campaigns that are scheduled for roll out), but also as a discursive signalling to partners, adversaries and their dependents within the field fo combat around which the challenge is publicly constructed.  It is in both senses, then, that one ought to welcome the small but significant public performance arranged by the  U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. USCESRC "was created by the United States Congress in October 2000 with the legislative mandate to monitor, investigate, and submit to Congress an annual report on the national security implications of the bilateral trade and economic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, and to provide recommendations, where appropriate, to Congress for legislative and administrative action." (here) .  Like the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), USCESRC delivers an annual report to Congress which is absorbed in the manner in which such productions are digested, with amplification if politically suitable, by selected press organs usually tasked with the projection of the gist of the Reports to the managed masses. 

Also like CECC, USCESRC undertakes the production of public displays of information that also set the stage  for policy and other objectives that are likely lying just below the surface.  This is hardly a criticism; merely an acknowledgement that like every other political society on earth, its institutions are in the business of managing its masses in accordance with its operative principles to to its ideological ends.  The Americans tend to do it this way--and sometimes quite successfully. While Latin America is rarely on the "A" list radar of the American foreign policy elites and their dependents, China is.  So what better way to continue to focus on the challenge of China (not that there is much effective focus on responses--Americans leaders and their press organs appear to enjoy altogether too much the fear-mongering part of their job rather than the harder task of actually meeting and overcoming challenge) in Latin America.

And there is good reason to engage in these theatrics now--especially in the context of the development of a coherent strategy to approach U.S. interests As Thiago de Aragao  noted: "The first two points (more markets for Chinese companies and a deep commercial and financial relationship) end up generating a by-product that becomes the third Chinese macro-objective in Latin America: to influence national public policies and the foreign policy in the different countries of the region, in order to strengthen China’s image, perception, and objectives at the international level." (Thiago de Aragao, Testimony; for a general discussion see ‘By Dred Things I am Compelled’: China and the Challenge to International Human Rights Law and Policy"). This is not to fault the Chinese authorities.  They are developing and aggressively implementing a coherent strategy that both advances their own interests and that in the process helps reshape the conceptual universe within which those interests are understood and the relative power of leading states measured. For the United Stated the choice then becomes clear (but internally painful)--to embrace the emerging new ordering of global affairs (that emerged in part while they were asleep at the wheel or otherwise involved in internal elite civil warfare) and in the process to get their own conceptual house in order, or to ride out its increasing misperceptions based on its own orthodoxies until it can do so no longer.

This is an old challenge, to be sure--certainly it has taken on its current form from early in the time of the leadership of Xi Jinping.  And the nature of that relationship has been made far more coherent, and its objectives broadened and consolidated through the mechanisms of the Belt & Road Initiative, already apparent to anyone with even the slightest interest since 2016.  And so it is with great appreciation that, however late, the institutional mechanisms of the American political establishment have if only for a short time  now focus publicly on "China in Latin America and the Caribbean" the title of a day of hearings held 20 May 2021. While it is good theatre, it is also an important movement toward the public discussion of an important and often neglected area of US policy.  

Taken together, the testimony offered suggests a range of elite thinking about the projection of Chinese power into Latin America.  That is quite useful.  Much of it ranges from the thoughtful to the quite insightful. The great difficult, at least form my perspective, is that there us an element of obsolescence in the discussion, in the sense of the basic presumptions that (ought to) form and drive the interests of the U.S. and that already drive those of  China.  That is the interests of post global imperial organization.  It is possible to surmise that the emerging post global order (1) is to be grounded on a basic premise that political collectives continue to be the most useful mechanisms for ordering relations among peoples; (2) such political collectives will be ordered vertically along lines of dependency; (3) at the core of these hub and spoke systems of power and dependency will be a central organizing collective (the US is one, China the other, and perhaps the EU eventually); (4) these collective core will be the repository of traditional sovereign flexibility and the recipients of tribute and obligation from other collectives; (5) the extent of the obligation of subordinate collectives (the dependencies) will depend on a complex set of historical, political, historical, and societal factors, but will be manifested in the extent to which they may be permitted to exercise sovereignty internally or externally; (6) the core territories of these post global empires will be effectively incorporated into the core and may be offered limited autonomy (Hong Kong, Indigenous territories, etc.); (7) second order dependencies may be regional powers in their own right but are tied in fundamental respects to the core; (8) and third order dependencies may be understood as the equivalent of ancient tributary states whose obligation will depend on the extent to which they find themselves embedded within the chains of production, society, and cultural extending from an imperial center; and (9) third order dependencies may find themselves to be tributaries both to regional powers and to competing imperial centers, which they might be able to exploit for their own preservation. To understand China in Latin America, then, it may be necessary to understand the extent to which each of the states within the region are understood as third order dependencies and the tensions that produces where they may also be second order dependencies of another power. 

Of course, all of this is communicated through the contemporary language of the political-economic system in which it is being undertaken.  In the United States that requires invocation of legal compliance, human rights, markets, and democratic participation in a social justice environment.  In China the language is one of fair development, collective aspirations, sovereign authority and social welfare in historically contextually contingent forms. The difficulty is exacerbated where one of the competing powers may start thinking along those lines and the other remains oblivious to its power. But to remain oblivious makes it more difficult for the power to effectively operate within its imperil jurisdiction and the great danger is the loss of empire as new ideas shape realities on the ground against which the older empire is incapable of resisting. This has happened twice before in Latin America--the first and most spectacular was marked by the collapse of Indigenous Empires in North and South America. The second and perhaps more relevant occurred in the 119th and 20th century, as the Spanish imperial system--deeply tied to its ancient roots in encomienda, religion, and mercantilism--was unable to understand or respond effectively to the emerging markets-based imperial systems developing in North America and Europe ("In the Shadow of Empires—Latin American Perceptions of Development and International Law"-- Summary of Presentation for ASIL 2019 Proceedings).  The Americans are now dangerously close to the sort of conceptual ossification (and misdirected will, along with an inability to change in the face of changing challenges) that cost the Spanish their empire.

The program follows below.  The Video recording of the event may be accessed here

China in Latin America and the Caribbean

9:30 AM – 9:40 AM: Opening Remarks: Hearing Co-Chairs Chairman Carolyn Bartholomew and Commissioner Derek Scissors 
9:40 AM – 11:10 AM: Panel I: China’s Strategic Approach in Latin America and the Caribbean

  • R. Evan Ellis, Research Professor of Latin American Studies, U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute [Testimony]
  • Margaret Myers, Director of the Asia and Latin America Program, Inter-American Dialogue [Testimony]
  • Ryan Berg, Senior Fellow, Americas Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies [Testimony]

11:10 AM – 11:20 AM: Break

11:20 AM – 12:50 PM: Panel II: China’s Economic Engagement in Latin America and the Caribbean

12:50 PM – 1:35 PM: Lunch Break

1:35 PM – 2:35 PM: Panel III: China’s Military and Security Activities in Latin America and the Caribbean

  • Cynthia Watson, Dean of Faculty and Academic Programs, National War College
  • Thiago de Aragão, Director of Strategy, Arko Advice Public Affairs; Senior Researcher, Center for Strategic and International Studies [Testimony]

2:35 PM – 2:45 PM: Break

2:45 PM – 4:15 PM: Panel IV: Case Studies

4:15 PM – 4:25 PM: Closing Remarks

4:25 PM: Adjourn

No comments: