In Other News: China’s “Disease Diplomacy” in Latin America, China-India Truce, Turkey Flexing & More – June 26, 2020

June 26, 2020

China sees an opening in Latin America with “disease diplomacy.” China has taken the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to increase its presence and influence in Latin America, sending personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators to a number of countries and looking to partner with Brazil for Covid-19 vaccine trials. Even before the pandemic, China had been increasing its level of diplomatic engagement and financial investment in the region, largely through development and infrastructure projects in line with their “Belt and Road Initiative.” China has been a financial benefactor of the left-wing Maduro government in Venezuela for a number of years, but Chinese government-owned entities have been looking for partnerships with other Latin American countries, including Colombia, which is considered the most stalwart of American allies in the region. While undermining U.S. influence in Latin America is not the primary objective of Chinese outreach in the region, it may have that impact. While the U.S. continues to have considerable influence in Latin America, the U.S. government is seen as focused primarily on stemming the flow of drugs and immigrants from the region and gathering international support for regime change in Venezuela. Recent announcements from the Trump administration do not dispel this view. This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions on five Iranian ship captains who delivered fuel to Venezuela at the end of May. He also announced the administration’s intent to provide $252 million in additional foreign assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for the purpose of helping these countries decrease illegal immigration to the United States.

China and India have negotiated a truce after a recent clash at their disputed border in the Himalayas left more than 20 dead, but credible reports that the skirmish was instigated by China have prompted Indian initiatives – both grassroots and government – to hit back at China’s tech sector. Anger at what many Indians view as a unilateral Chinese provocation has prompted a groundswell of social media activity encouraging users to delete popular Chinese apps, such as TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance. At the official level, the incident at the border has strengthened momentum behind efforts to find alternatives to China’s Huawei and ZTE – or potentially ban their involvement – in India’s rollout of 5G. If China was in fact the instigator in this latest incident at the India-China border, that would be consistent with a larger pattern of Chinese antagonism of neighboring countries and territories, including de facto violation of its prior commitment to Hong Kong autonomy and harassment of other countries’ ships in the South China Sea. These actions have already begun to provoke some pushback, and to prompt India and other vulnerable countries to court new commercial, military, and diplomatic alliances with the U.S., Australia, and other states whose backing could be an effective deterrent to Chinese aggression.

Turkish military actions in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean are raising concerns about unchecked escalation in the region that could grow into a larger conflict. After a spate of attacks in Turkey by Kurdish separatists earlier in June, Turkey has launched a multi-pronged counter-offensive seeking to root out Kurdish rebels domestically and abroad. Last week, Turkey carried out air strikes on what it claims are hundreds of Kurdish rebel targets in Iraqi Kurdistan, with credible reports of artillery support from Iran. While Iraq has criticized Turkey for violating its sovereignty, Iraq is contending with a fiscal crisis owing to a steep drop in oil prices, the aftermath of months of large-scale protests in Baghdad, and a growing outbreak of Covid-19, and is in no position to intervene or retaliate. Furthermore, Turkey’s offensive in Iraqi Kurdistan is diverting the focus of Iraqi Kurdistan forces from battling ISIS, which has been regrouping at Iraqi Kurdistan’s southern border. Coincident with its efforts to roust out Kurdish rebels, Turkey has provided military intervention in Libya on behalf of the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord, France has reported that one of its naval vessels was harassed by Turkish warships in the Mediterranean, and Greece-Turkey tensions have flared over Greece’s accusation that Turkey goaded migrants into illegally crossing the EU border from Turkey into Greece. There is talk of Turkey’s end game being the reestablishment of an Ottoman Empire, but the odds of that seem very slim, and the upside for the U.S. is that Turkey is effectively countering Russian interventions in Libya and Syria/Iraq. That said, Turkey’s foreign and military policy are on an unpredictable trajectory that present a credible risk of miscalculation and collateral damage.

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera is facing increased criticism and a further erosion of confidence, with the economy suffering and COVID-19 deaths on the rise. In Chile, as elsewhere around the globe, the pandemic has exacerbated social injustice, income inequality, and political uncertainty. The Chilean central bank recently announced that the economy would contract between 5.5%- 7.5% in 2020. Piñera’s government recently announced a $12 billion stimulus package to help poor communities and create jobs, given the impacts of the pandemic and resulting economic contraction. But it might not be enough for a growing number of Chileans who are critical of Piñera’s handling of the pandemic. Chile has been under a “State of Exception” or curfew since March, and many Chileans believe Piñera’s strategy for containing the virus has not taken into account the economic challenges the lockdowns have created for poor families. Chileans critical of Piñera believe the government-mandated curfew continues in place to prevent further political protests and not just to curb the spread of the virus. They are also skeptical of the figures the government releases regarding confirmed Covid-19 cases. Officially, there are more than 4,000 deaths in Chile with a population of less than 19 million.