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How Chinese and U.S. influence is hindering regional integration efforts in Latin America

By Tadeo Arturo Cejudo Mejorada (edited by Sonja Rijnen)-

Source: AP Photo/Rolex Dela Pena, Pool

Since the end of WWII, global institutions and regional blocs have undertaken an important role in decision-making and policy action. However, initiatives for integration between states vary in their degree of success. Commitment from member states to cooperate is essential for strengthening integration initiatives, and, in Latin America, this commitment seems to be weak. Many countries in the region have failed to follow through on the commitments they assumed at the regional level. Arguably, one reason for this has been increased foreign interventions, especially from China and the U.S.

The People's Republic of China under Xi Jinping’s administration has been trying to expand its economic and political influence worldwide. From Subsaharan Africa, Western Europe and, more recently, Latin America, the world's largest industrial producer is looking to integrate potential trade partners on a global network that will, in the words of Yaqing Qin, “provide an opportunity for countries to work together to be better than before”. In this context, China has taken efforts to further integrate itself into Latin American trade institutions and uphold preferential commercial partners in the region, namely Chile and Brasil. In terms of trade, in the case of MERCOSUR, 30% of the Bloc’s exports are to China, compared to only 10% to the U.S.

But, besides these bilateral and trade partnerships, it is Chinese presence and close collaboration with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), which is halting additional attempts at regional integration. The CELAC is an intergovernmental mechanism that aspires to be a unique voice for Latin American and Caribbean countries in realising concrete regional policy-making decisions regarding cooperation and integration programmes. Some of its objectives are to “promote regional integration and sustainable development, political cooperation and a regional comprehensive agenda”. Since its launch in December 2011, it has served as an alternative forum to promote dialogue among extra-regional states, committees and organisations concerning points of mutual interest; the China-CELAC Forum being a remarkable example of this regional-lead dialogue mechanism.

The first China-CELAC Forum (CFF) was held in Beijing 7 years ago, and ever since, the ties between the organization’s member states and China have grown exponentially. The main objective is to foster joint cooperation and dialogue on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and development, which, according to the declaration of the third ministerial meeting of the CCF is: “deepening the relations between both Parties as well as South-South and triangular cooperation, thus laying a solid foundation for the sustainable and inclusive development”. This forum has been, and continues to be, extremely important for Latin America’s regional development efforts, social impact projects and economic security, especially amidst turbulent global scenarios, such as those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. This was made clear by President Xi Jinping’s message at the inauguration of the 6th summit of Heads of State and Government of CELAC, which took place in Mexico City on September 18th, 2021. He stated that the forum has become the “primary platform that brings together people who care about our relations from all sectors on both sides”. This intervention of the Chinese president reflects the country's relevance in Latin American political and economic dynamics, a role that it will continue to play as the tendency for greater integration rises.

Notably, this contrasts with the United States, which is often seen as interventionist regarding its institutional positions and activities. Multiple countries in the region have taken a pessimistic position in reference to the Organization of American States (OAS). The OAS was created in 1948 as a result of the desire of the United States to sign the OAS Chapter at the end of the Ninth Pan-American Conference, held in Bogota. The organisation grew out of another U.S.-sponsored international organization: the Pan-American Union. Both of these organisations attempted to continentalise the Monroe Doctrine and served to spread American. Over the years, many Latin American countries have distanced themselves from this.

This negative attitude towards the OAS has now translated into a requirement for change within the structure of the Interamerican system. This rhetoric against institutional interventionism combined with China's increasing influence in the region represents a direct threat to the United States’ historic dominance over the subcontinent. Hence, the United States, especially in the post-Trump era, will look to promote strategies to regain regional confidence and promote greater financial operations and commercial links.

So far, the Biden-Harris administration has implemented a change in strategy to focus more on cooperation and partnership instead of threats and restrictive policies. The donation of 55 million COVID-19 vaccines, the provision of 614 million US dollars to support a regional pandemic response and the extension of the Temporary Protection Status for eligible immigrants during their first year in office are some actions aimed at regaining a respected and vocal position within the regional institutions. Nevertheless, this package has proven insufficient to gain back the U.S.’ traditional status as dominant in the region.

But, how are Chinese and US presence in the region halting further integration efforts between Latin American states themselves? Since the commencement of the pandemic, Latin America’s joint efforts to combat the economic implications, provide medical supply chains, research partnerships and agree on common policies, have proven weak. The relative absence of the United States in the midst of the increasing crisis left the path open for the Chinese to intervene through intergovernmental collaboration, making collaboration between Latin American states themselves less relevant.

In broader terms, this upset in the traditional balance of power in the region, stemming from four years of U.S. restrictive policies and an active engagement by the People’s Republic of China, has led to the creation of regional blocs whose interests are opposed as far as integration policies are concerned. In this block fracture, on the one hand, are those nations that support and promote US intervention in the region and those that criticize it by waving the flag of self-determination, the latter, recognising in China a commercial partner and natural ally that adheres to the parameters of what in their eyes is a win-win cooperation. A common Latin American policy would require overcoming intraregional interests under the frameworks of South-South cooperation, but the Sino-American intervention does not allow these efforts to be made while there is, what appears to be, a pitched battle for control of the subcontinent’s resources.

The situation in Latin America as it stands now is that there is an ever-increasing role of China whilst the U.S. is attempting to revitalise its presence and leadership in the region, although so far it has not succeeded. With this in mind, the decades-long efforts to build truly intergovernmental regional and supranational organisations in Latin America will likely be halted by the fractures that a “bloc strategy” imposes in the regional dialogue and cooperation structures. While the U.S.-backed OAS is losing authority in the region and the Chinese-inclined CELAC seems to be increasing in relevance, the regional debate regarding whether to renovate the current structure or create a new one, in addition to the foreign pressures on the matter, is what is currently leading integration attempts towards failure.



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