While the Biden administration tries to navigate the domestic political obstacles to implementing the president’s so-called Build Back Better plan, it has quietly started laying the groundwork for a parallel program with major geopolitical implications. Just getting off the ground, Build Back Better World, or B3W, is a plan to improve global infrastructure, widely defined, with an eye to not only raise living standards but, just as importantly, to counter China’s growing influence.
The idea was formally announced by the Group of Seven leaders during the G-7 summit last June. It aims to take on China’s high-profile Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, but in a way that contrasts sharply with China’s most controversial practices, while deliberately highlighting the distinctions between the two initiatives by emphasizing partnerships built on values and transparency.
B3W will formally launch next year, but preparations are now underway to make Latin America a key focus of the strategy. The initiative had its most visible moment yet last week, during a tour of the region by high-level U.S. officials, who met with heads of state and other key players in several countries.
Latin America is likely to play a major role in B3W because it stands at the intersection of several of Washington’s strategic priorities, including competing with China, stemming the flow of migrants from the region and addressing climate change, corruption and inequality.
It’s hard to imagine a more complex set of challenges, but B3W, if successful, has the potential to make a difference on all of them.
When the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Adm. Craig Faller, gave his annual update to Congress earlier this year, he described China as the outside power of greatest concern to the U.S. in Latin America and the Caribbean. He noted that China’s fast-expanding trade ties and its multibillion-dollar projects under the BRI banner are increasingly being tied to Chinese strategic interests, with Beijing often demanding that target countries sever diplomatic ties to Taiwan and adopt Chinese-built 5G infrastructure. Faller called Latin America the “front line” of U.S. competition with China.
But China’s investment across the developing world has a mixed reputation, which creates an opening for the United States and its Western allies that seek to counter it.
That was in plain view last week when the panel of U.S. envoys visited the region on the first of several planned “listening tours,” searching for potential projects while touting the benefits of partnering with a democracy, rather than an autocratic behemoth.
The delegation was headed by Daleep Singh, the deputy national security adviser for international economics, and it included high-level officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, as well as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and others.
They met separately with the presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Panama, as well as with representatives of the private sector and civil society, including environmental activists and labor activists.
The contrasts the U.S. is trying to highlight between its approach and that of China are often the very reason Beijing has a much easier time making inroads in Latin America.
At every turn they explained that Washington and its G-7 partners are aiming to find areas of genuine need, in contrast with Chinese projects that have been criticized for being overly costly but not always necessary. They also stressed that B3W projects will be developed in a way that aligns with “shared values,” placing an emphasis on transparency—a key issue in a region beset with corruption—along with respect for environmental considerations and labor protections.
Singh made no secret of the fact that the United States doesn’t view this as a humanitarian assistance project. Standing alongside President Ivan Duque in Colombia, he declared, “For the U.S., this is strategic. When we think of our global stature, enhancing the economic prosperity of our friends is at least as important as our military might.”
B3W, according to U.S. officials and their interlocutors in Latin America, will seek to develop joint projects that are environmentally sustainable and potentially transformative in areas like health, technology and climate mitigation and adaptation.
It’s a tall order, and the competition from Beijing is fierce. Making it more complicated, the contrasts the U.S. is trying to highlight between its approach and that of China are often the very reason Beijing has a much easier time making inroads in Latin America and elsewhere. Chinese projects make no demands regarding respect for human rights, for example, as a requirement for investing, and they’re much less concerned, if at all, with transparency, environmental impact, labor standards or job creation.
As a result, China has expanded its economic footprint in a region where the United States used to be the undisputed, dominant trading partner.
Trade between China and Latin America has grown more than twentyfold in the past decade, making China the No. 1 trading partner for Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and others. Already 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have joined BRI, accounting for billions in Chinese investment in the region.
But in many cases, trade centers on extractive industries, primarily mineral mining and oil to fuel China’s economic growth. In Peru, for example, 88 percent of the country’s exports to China are minerals. Extractive industries are notoriously difficult to translate into sustainable economic development, and they are often rife with corruption and environmental degradation.
As the United States keeps a close eye on Beijing’s growing threats against Taiwan, its crushing of promised democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, and its relentless abuses against the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, it is also watching a Chinese economic juggernaut take hold across the developing world, undercutting U.S. influence everywhere, including in Washington’s own hemisphere.
By offering a different kind of economic investment, one that engages other sectors of the receiving countries, respects the interests of local communities and creates sustainable development, the U.S. and its allies could help reverse that trend.
But competing with a regime that has deep pockets and no democratic accountability while simultaneously battling vested interests in the region, which often benefit from Chinese trade and investment, will be no small challenge. That will be especially true going forward, as investing in Latin America becomes yet another arena for great power competition.
If B3W succeeds, it could be genuinely transformative for the region and for geopolitical dynamics. But that’s still a very big “if.”