China pairs actions with messaging in Latin America. The United States should do the same.

China’s rapidly deepening economic engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) during the past decade is well documented. Less studied is Beijing’s coordination of mounting trade, financing, and investment with concerted focus on diplomatic engagement, public diplomacy, and information operations to cultivate greater influence across the region. This short paper addresses China’s multifaceted approach to LAC countries and increased engagement with the region in recent years, contrasting China’s approach with that of the United States. The paper then turns to the shifting dynamics in China-LAC relations, potential implications for the region and the United States, and how Washington should pair diplomatic engagement and strategic messaging with greater attention to LAC countries’ needs to better compete with China in the future.

China’s multifaceted engagement in Latin America

China’s increasing role in the economies of LAC countries in recent years is well documented. China’s state-directed “policy banks,” including China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank, provided more than $138 billion in loans to Latin America between 2005 and 2020. Regional trade with China grew from $12 billion in 2000 to a staggering $445 billion in 2021.1By 2021, China accounted for 18 percent of Latin American trade, up from 5 percent in 2005. Excluding Mexico, the share rises to 24 percent. See “What Does China’s Reopening Mean for Latin America?,” Economist, January 18, 2023, The resulting economic boon to developing regional economies—and the potential political benefits to local leaders keen to claim credit for addressing very real development needs—has been significant. Not surprisingly, China is now perceived as an indispensable partner in many LAC countries.

But China’s growing sway in Latin America is neither simply a result of these economic ties, nor is Beijing’s interest in the region’s considerable resources the sole driver of its expanded engagement in the region. China has effectively paired investment and trade with strategic diplomacy and public messaging, amplifying its regional influence in the process just as it has for decades in Africa and other developing regions. China’s active participation in Latin America’s public tenders, through which Chinese construction firms have won numerous high-profile bids, are all the more valuable because such visible and strategic projects are paired with highly effective messaging and diplomacy underscoring China’s economic leadership.2Felipe Larraín and Pepe Zhang, “China’s Evolving Presence in Latin America,” Americas Quarterly, January 23, 2023,

China’s public messaging in the region underscores consistent themes emphasizing a mutually beneficial (“win-win”) arrangement with countries irrespective of their politics or internal affairs. China’s message to the Global South that it doesn’t lecture countries is an indirect reference to US admonitions on democracy and governance. Chinese leaders view the expected protracted competition with the United States in decades to come as their top strategic priority—and see inroads in the LAC region in the context of that competition—but Beijing assiduously paints its involvement in the region as unrelated to these concerns or in any way aimed at Washington.3Another of Beijing’s unspoken goals in the region is to isolate Taiwan by attempting to lure away LAC countries that maintain diplomatic relations with the island. Panama, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador switched recognition to the PRC in 2017-2018, and Nicaragua switched in December 2021. Currently, eight countries in LAC (out of fourteen countries worldwide, including the Vatican) recognize Taiwan; the remaining twenty-five in LAC recognize the PRC. Honduran President Xiomara Castro, inaugurated in January 2022, stated her government would maintain relations with Taiwan for now despite a campaign vow to establish relations with the PRC. This approach has remained consistent since the release of the People’s Republic of China’s second policy paper on LAC in 2016, which noted that China’s stepped up cooperation with the region “does not target or exclude any third party.”4The groundbreaking white paper also stated that China seeks to strengthen cooperation on the basis of “equality and mutual benefit” in key areas, including exchanges and dialogues, trade and investment, agriculture, energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, and technological innovation.

China’s messaging approach is remarkably monolithic, with identical narratives simultaneously issued by news outlets in different countries and by diplomats and company representative throughout the region. This suggests a highly centralized, coordinated decision-making process involving elements of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department—as well as limited capacity to tailor China’s messages to particular contexts in the region.5Luiza Duarte, Robert Albro, and Eric Hershberg, “Communicating Influence: China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Center for Latin American & Latino Studies (CLALS) Working Paper Series No. 35, February 1, 2022, The PRC propaganda and information operations approach in LAC countries has become more systematic and diverse over the past decade, including opinion pieces, media content-sharing agreements, coproductions, press trips for Latin American journalists, and diplomatic accounts on social media platforms.6The China-Latin America Media Exchange Center, announced by Xi Jinping in 2016, invites journalists to China to work and study, and cited a goal of training hundreds or journalists each year. Paid insertions and supplements in local outlets celebrating CCP achievements and legitimizing the Chinese government and leadership are also becoming more frequent and reflect a determination to present counternarratives to those of China’s critics. These interventions highlight the Chinese understanding or redefinition of such concepts as “freedom,” “democracy,” “harmony,” and “human rights.”7Duarte, Albro, and Hershberg, “Communicating Influence.”

China has also paid a remarkable level of high-level diplomatic attention to LAC. Since 2012, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has visited Latin America eleven times. In comparison, during his two terms, US President Barack Obama visited twelve times, whereas President Donald Trump went once. President Joe Biden, limited by the pandemic, made his first visit to the region just this January when he visited Mexico. China is an observer at the Organization of American States and a member of both the Inter-American Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank.. China has signed comprehensive strategic partnerships with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. Since 2015, Xi has participated in three summits with leaders and foreign ministers of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which does not include the United States and Canada. Twenty-one Latin American countries have so far signed on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s signature global infrastructure program tied to China’s geostrategic aims.8See Congressional Research Service, “China’s Engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean,” In Focus (series) IF10982, updated December 28, 2022, To date, twenty-one countries in LAC participate in the BRI; most recently, Argentina joined in February 2022.

China is also engaging at the local level, investing in local projects while meeting officials and sending coordinated messages. China’s pitch is that it is interested purely in doing business—and offers deals others won’t.9Jonathan Gilbert, Andrew Rosati, and Ethan Bronner, “How China Beat Out the U.S. to Dominate South America,” Bloomberg, February 17, 2022, In many countries, China has deepened subnational-level relations through parliamentary exchanges and is building relationships directly with governors and mayors.10Lucy Stevenson-Yang and Henry Tugendhat, “China’s Engagement in Latin America: Views from the Region,” Analysis and Commentary, United States Institute of Peace, August 8, 2022,

Taken together, China’s economic, diplomatic, and strategic propaganda and messaging efforts combine to pose a significant challenge to US influence in the region. As noted in a recent Atlantic Council report, the pandemic accelerated the trend of China using its growing economic and diplomatic muscle to provide an alternative to US activities and interests. In particular, China’s pairing of vaccine shipments with official diplomatic engagement with local leaders and ministers, public diplomacy, and comprehensive media engagement to ensure positive headlines exemplifies China’s approach to aid and assistance throughout the Global South. China also engaged more effectively with LAC leaders during the pandemic, with Xi calling LAC leaders directly when they were infected with COVID-19 to promise vaccine donations and raise other items including new loan agreements.11María Eugenia Brizuela de Ávila et al., US-China Vaccine Diplomacy: Lessons from Latin America and the Caribbean, Atlantic Council, February 23, 2022,

The case of Panama

China’s strategic propaganda and messaging approach in Panama since the country’s newly established diplomatic relationship with China in 2017 provides an instructive example of the ways the CCP pairs economic engagement with diplomatic initiatives and information operations to achieve maximum influence. According to Freedom House, Chinese state media and diplomats promote narratives that Panama’s newly established diplomatic relationship with China will translate into economic opportunities. A variety of Chinese state-linked entities—the local embassy, Xinhua news agency, and the Radio and Television Administration of China—have content-sharing or paid-insert agreements with mainstream Spanish-language media, including the oldest newspaper in the country and the public broadcaster. As is the case in many countries, groups of Panamanian journalists have routinely traveled to China for “media trainings” at the expense of the Chinese government or Huawei since 2018.12These trips typically carry an expectation that participating journalists publish positive news stories about China or the company upon their return. See “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022: Panama Country Report,” Freedom House, China also is increasingly active on Panamanian social media platforms: China’s ambassador to Panama adeptly uses his fluency in Spanish to engage on Twitter with opinion leaders, journalists, and ordinary users.13The ambassador is reportedly the most active Twitter user of all Chinese officials based in Latin America, with over 18,000 followers as of March 2022. During the pandemic, Chinese diplomats on Panamanian social media posted videos set to soaring music that depicted the ambassador signing donation certificates or donating supplies. See “Beijing’s Global Media Influence 2022: Panama Country Report,” and International Republican Institute (IRI), A World Safe for the Party: China’s Authoritarian Influence and the Democratic Response,v 2021. The CCP’s footprint is heaviest in Chinese-language media that serves Panama’s Chinese diaspora community, Central America’s largest. With no independent Chinese-language media available in Panama, local Chinese-language outlets regularly publish pro-Beijing content that is heavily reliant on Chinese state media. Huawei also influences media reporting through its information and technology academies, and its position as a major advertiser in media—underscoring the role of nominally private Chinese companies in Beijing’s coordinated approach. Lastly, the role of strategic corruption as a complement to China’s overt messaging and diplomatic approach to Panama and other LAC countries cannot be overstated.14To facilitate a favorable environment for Chinese enterprises and encourage pro-China foreign policy decisions, the Chinese government lavishes foreign leaders and their coterie with personal “donations” and market access for their privately owned companies. Panama’s decision to switch diplomatic recognition to the PRC from Taiwan appears to have been shaped by CCP influence with the then-ruling Juan Carlos Varela government, including a $143 million donation to the country, Chinese market access for Varela’s alcohol company, and leveraging the Chinese diaspora in Panama. See IRI, A World Safe for the Party.

US steps in the right direction

The US response to China’s fast-growing influence in LAC thus far can charitably be described as delayed, uncoordinated, and largely ineffective. Washington has been slow to step up its own material and diplomatic engagement with the region, responding at least initially with messaging and tactics seemingly designed to alienate key constituencies and confirm fears that the United States only cares about the region in the context of the emerging global competition with China.15Joel Gehrke, “Pompeo to Latin America: ‘We Love You,’ China Doesn’t,” Washington Examiner, April 12, 2019, Washington has had some limited success in discrete areas, such as pressing countries to exclude Chinese firms from their 5G networks. Most LAC countries, however, are understandably unwilling to give up the cheap infrastructure and low-cost products that Chinese companies offer and US companies are unlikely to be able to supply, ranging from 5G networks to subways.16Ilaria Mazzocco, “Evolving South American-China Relations: Challenges and Opportunities for Washington,” Blog, Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 24, 2022, For example, in 2021 the Trump administration extended a $3.5 billion loan to Ecuador to help it pay off debt to China on the condition that it exclude Chinese telecom firms from its 5G network.

The Biden administration has made a conscious effort not to paint US reengagement in LAC as driven by competition with China. The Biden administration’s National Security Strategy describes China as a strategic competitor but maintains that the administration will not view the world solely through the prism of strategic competition, focusing on partnerships in LAC to advance economic resilience, democratic stability, and citizen security.17See White House, National Security Strategy, October 2022, 12, 40-41, US officials are increasingly promoting alternatives to the BRI rather than simply criticizing it, with infrastructure financing offers with competitive terms and which promote sound environmental policy, good labor standards, and transparency.18Gilbert, Rosati, and Bronner, “How China Beat Out the U.S. to Dominate South America.” The “Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity,” announced by President Biden at the Summit of the Americas in June, is designed to demonstrate US commitment to Latin American economies, and proposes to revitalize the Inter-American Development Bank and create clean energy jobs. “The best antidote to China’s inroads in the region,” a senior administration official reportedly told Reuters, “is to ensure that we are forwarding our own affirmative vision for the region economically.”19Trevor Hunnicutt, Daina Beth Solomon, and Matt Spetalnick, “Biden Unveils New Latin America Economic Plan at Reboot Summit Dogged By Dissent,” Reuters, updated June 9, 2022

Implementation of such proposals will be critical, but there are promising signs that Washington is taking a more effective approach to regional competition with China focused on the needs of LAC countries themselves. Key questions going forward are not only whether Washington can deliver on its promises, but also whether it can better coordinate messaging and diplomatic engagement with investment and assistance in a way that counters China’s drive for influence. The US approach to pandemic assistance was not encouraging; many US donations did not generate the same impact in public perception as did Chinese donations, pointing up the importance of pairing positive messaging and engagement with concrete deliverables to achieve maximum effect.20Brizuela de Ávila et al., US-China Vaccine Diplomacy.

China’s changing regional engagement

As Washington readjusts its response to China’s influence in the LAC region, it should account for shifting dynamics in China’s regional engagement that may naturally alter perceptions of China in ways that align with US goals. Most notably, China’s slowing growth and pullback from financing in the region will gradually reshape the nature of LAC countries’ ties with—and views of—China. While trade with Latin America will remain significant, China’s economic engagement with the region may weaken as its growth slows, especially in greenfield investment and sovereign lending.21Margaret Myers, “A Belt & Rough Road?: China-Latin America Relations,” Weekly Asado (blog), Latin American Program, Wilson Center, October 28, 2023,; and Congressional Research Service, “China’s Engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean.” Chinese investment in LAC is likely to be more narrowly focused on sectors considered critical to China’s economic growth, included in industries known in China as “new infrastructure”—such as 5G, electricity transmission, high-speed rail, electric vehicles, data centers, and artificial intelligence. Since 2020, China’s policy banks have approved no new loans to the region.22“What Does China’s Reopening Mean for Latin America?,” Economist. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2035 Chinese trade participation in Latin America may account for 25 percent of the entire region’s trade, and more than 40 percent of exports from Chile, Brazil, and Peru alone; see “China’s Trade with Latin America Is Bound to Keep Growing. Here’s Why That Matters,” World Economic Forum, June 17, 2021, Recent signals in China highlight the severity of the ongoing economic slowdown. China’s largest property development company is fighting to survive while the latest economic data reveals a 14.5% decline in Chinese exports compared to the previous 12 months.23Rebecca Feng and Cao Li, “China’s Country Garden Makes Overdue Dollar-Bond Payments, Avoiding Default,” Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2021,; J. Edward Moreno, “China’s Exports Fall Again, Imperiling Its Economic Recovery,” New York Times, August 8, 2023, This slowdown is likely to have a cascading effect on the relationships between Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries and China. For instance, Chinese investments into Brazil have recently plummeted to their lowest point in 13 years.24Bernardo Caram, “Chinese Investment in Brazil Plunges 78% in 2022, Hits Lowest Since 2009,” Reuters, August 29, 2023,

More fundamentally, structural issues in China, such as a domestic property slump, fallout from the trade war with the United State, and a turn toward statist economic policies under Xi may signal that China will not play the same role in Latin American economies as it has since it blasted onto the scene during the past two decades. Perceptions of China also may be shaped by growing concerns about stalled investments—more high-value BRI transactions were suspended or canceled in Latin America than almost anywhere else—and by the labor and environmental impact of Chinese projects.25Maxwell Radwin, “Chinese Investment in Latin America Plagues People and Nature: Report,” Mongabay, March 24, 2022, China’s attempted use of economic leverage over countries in Europe and Asia to coerce outcomes in line with the CCP’s interests and geopolitical aims, while not much of a factor or concern currently in LAC, may eventually contribute to dampened views of China as it has elsewhere.26Laura Silver, Christine Huang, and Laura Clancy, How Global Public Opinion of China Has Shifted in the Xi Era, Pew Research Center, September 28, 2022,

China will clearly remain a key economic player in LAC, particularly in the trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) domains, and Chinese diplomatic engagement is likely to remain expansive.27Myers, “A Belt & Rough Road?” Former Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi engineered increased “people-to-people” diplomacy in Latin America. Having now joined the Politburo, Wang may build on that strategy through government, the private sector and the CCP as a way of facilitating continued commercial engagement and building support for China’s position on Taiwan and other foreign policy priorities. China’s security and arms relationships across the region will likely grow and remain of understandable concern to US military planners.28According to the US Southern Command 2022 posture statement, worrying PRC activities include “investments in strategic infrastructure, systematic technology and intellectual property theft, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, and malicious cyber activity—all with the goal of expanding long-term access and influence in this hemisphere.” See Congressional Research Service, “China’s Engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean.” But China’s slowdown and the country’s increasingly apparent internal challenges under Xi may contribute to a “coming down to earth” of expectations for China’s promise as a boon to the development of regional countries. It may also weaken receptivity to China’s message that its success is proof that the road to prosperity no longer runs through liberal democracy.29As Xi put it at the Nineteenth CCP Congress in 2017, China’s model offers “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” Chinese officials now commonly speak of the “right” of nations to choose their political systems, be they democratic or authoritarian—and the arrogance of countries such as the United States that assume that democracy is the preferable option. Moreover, this messaging has had power in many developing countries that see China’s rapid development as a model to replicate, raising concerns in Washington and elsewhere that China is successfully exporting its autocratic model of governance and development. See, for instance, R. Evan Ellis, “How U.S. Can Compete With China in Latin America,” National Defense (website), December 28, 2022, This concern may be of particular relevance now in Latin America, where the latest turn toward leftist governments may yield greater appreciation for statist economic policies and the role of government versus private enterprise in achieving desired social and economic objectives.

One more factor in shifting dynamics in China’s relations with LAC is the possibility that familiarity is starting to breed contempt—or at least less widespread appreciation—for China’s engagement and business practices. Coming back to the Panama example, public sentiment toward the Chinese government soured significantly after diplomatic ties were established. In 2018 and 2021, approximately 68 percent of respondents found the Chinese government to be “untrustworthy” or “not very trustworthy.” This is a large increase from 2016—a year before diplomatic relations were established—when only 48 percent of respondents found the Chinese government untrustworthy.30Navigate to the question “Foreign Relations: Trustworthiness of the Chinese government” under “Panama” in Americas Barometer, survey years 2016, 2018, 2021, accessed April 14, 2022,

Lessons from Africa, where Chinese engagement goes back decades and is comparatively more established than in Latin America, may be instructive here. A growing body of research indicates that, after an initial period of excitement regarding the promise of Chinese private investment, African populations’ perceptions of China as well as of their own domestic economy plummet once projects begin operating, particularly in the localities hosting those projects. Africans’ views of their leaders who welcomed these investments follow a similar pattern. The expected widespread benefits of Chinese FDI do not materialize as firms focus on maximizing and extracting profits, local jobs are not created, and negative environmental effects arise.31John McCauley, Margaret Pearson, and Xiaonan Wang, “Africa’s Leaders Often Welcome Chinese Private Investment. How Do African Citizens Feel?,” Monkey Cage (series), Analysis, Washington Post,December 9, 2021,; and John F. McCauley, Margaret M. Pearson, Xiaonan Wang, “Does Chinese FDI in Africa Inspire Support for a China Model of Development?,” World Development 150 (2022), 105738,

Taken together, these factors support a case for the United States to focus on pairing concrete engagement with LAC countries to address specific needs with positive messaging and outreach, while allowing the current moment in China-Latin America relations to play out. Unmet expectations from China’s rapid investments across the region, mounting skepticism about China’s model, and rising if nascent concerns about vulnerability to PRC coercion are likely to prove more challenging to China’s regional ambitions than anything the United States could manufacture through countermessaging campaigns.

Going forward

The United States should match stepped up diplomatic engagement and progress on regional and bilateral economic partnership initiatives in LAC countries with positive messaging about reinvigorated US focus on the region as an economic and strategic priority. In addition:

  • US officials should signal acceptance of China’s enduring presence as a key regional player in private engagements with local leaders and business, including welcoming discussion of how US and Chinese investment can be complementary and benefit local economies, provided governments in their dealings with Chinese entities prioritize transparency in negotiations and tendering processes, labor and environmental guidelines, and risk mitigation in the (likely) event host counties are unwilling to outright reject entreaties from Chinese tech companies.
  • US messaging should emphasize a shared vision for the role of institutions critical to sustaining vibrant, prosperous, independent democracies: civil society, independent media, competitive and transparent bidding processes for infrastructure deals, anti-corruption and anti-money laundering measures, and laws and regulations regarding the role of state-linked foreign actors, foreign money, and foreign purveyors of information in host countries. The United States should significantly increase its support for these institutions and practices across LAC—prioritizing countries most at risk of CCP influence and of greatest strategic value to Washington—and ramp up messaging and engagement around this support without ever mentioning China by name.
  • Washington must also continue to monitor and privately flag concerning PRC activities bilaterally with local leaders, but should be highly selective in its warnings, focusing, for example, on the risks of investment in strategic sectors like the electricity grid or ports with potential military applications. Such warnings would be most effective if paired with offers of alternatives to Chinese-built critical infrastructure.

In January, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador admonished President Biden about the need for the United States to do away with its “disdain” and “forgetfulness” of LAC.32Rebecca Falconer, “Mexican President Calls on Biden to End U.S. “Disdain” for Latin America,” Axios, January 10, 2023, One can debate the accuracy and fairness of that comment, as Biden did at the time. But the comment underscores the simple first principle of any US strategy to counter China’s growing influence in the region: presence and attention to the needs of LAC countries. China will remain a key player in the region, but not necessarily one that poses an insurmountable threat to vital US interests as its economy slows and the inherent weaknesses of its authoritarian model and the risks of partnering with the PRC become more apparent. Washington is well positioned to compete with Beijing in LAC if it follows through on pledges to address the needs of Latin American countries, bolsters the capacity of local governments and democratic actors, and pairs such concrete actions with greater diplomatic attention and well-timed messaging.

About the author

The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and the world.

The Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center broadens understanding of regional transformations and delivers constructive, results-oriented solutions to inform how the public and private sectors can advance hemispheric prosperity.

Image: Sailors wave the China and Panama flags to China's President Xi Jinping at the Cocoli locks in the expanded Panama Canal, in Panama City, Panama December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso