Rex Tillerson has made 18 foreign trips since he was confirmed as secretary of state on February 1, 2017: Only one them, a two-day visit to Mexico City early in his tenure, was south of the U.S. border.
Tillerson was back in Mexico City on Friday, the first stop in his first multi-country tour of Latin America and the Caribbean. But while U.S. officials were planning his trip, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met late last month in Chile with 33 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States and invited them to become part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure plan that aims to connect China to its Asian neighbors and farther afield. Chinese investment in these countries has gone beyond raw-material extraction to car manufacturing, tech, and telecoms.
China’s trade with and investment in the region deepened at around the time of the great recession of 2008. Between 2015 and 2019, it plans to invest $250 billion in direct investment in the region and about $500 billion in trade. It’s well on its way: China is already the largest trading partner of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru.
As I’ve previously written, countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have a hard time securing international financing because of poor governance, corruption, and their economic policies. But China goes to them, builds desperately needed roads, railways, and ports, and uses these new facilities to transport raw material to feed its growing economy and population. China is an attractive investor not only because it has a policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its partner countries but because its projects are completed at a speed that developing nations are unused to. More importantly, perhaps, it offers to finance these projects on easy terms. But there’s always a catch, Tillerson said Thursday at the University of Texas, his alma mater.