On a recent visit to several countries in Central and South America, Utah Sen. Mike Lee said he was struck by China’s growing influence in the region. In an interview with the Deseret News, he made the case that American policymakers should pay closer attention to what’s going on in their own hemisphere.

Lee said he saw signs in all the countries they visited — Panama, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil — of China’s growing influence. He called China’s attempts to establish influence in the Western Hemisphere a “significant” development. 

“We’ve not seen a major foreign power trying this hard to establish this many footholds in our own hemisphere all at once,” he said.  

A Council on Foreign Relations study says China is now South America’s largest trade partner and is the second largest partner after the U.S. for Latin America as a whole. China is also investing heavily in infrastructure in the region, as part of its “belt and road initiative,” with Chinese banks and companies financing and building infrastructure for a variety of sectors, including energy, agriculture, transportation and technology. 

Lee traveled to the region with a bipartisan group of senators, including Republican Sens. Mike Crapo of Idaho and John Cornyn of Texas, and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. The purpose of the trip was to investigate China’s growing influence in the region and to strengthen American ties with leadership in the region. 

Lee said he is concerned that the U.S. has historically focused on trade relationships outside of its own hemisphere, but he’d like that to change. 

“I think, insofar as we can establish good trade relationships with our Latin American partners, we can make ourselves less dependent on China,” he said. 

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Utah Sen. Mike Lee discusses the challenges of drug smuggling and illegal immigration with Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mark Fedor on board a USCGC Tampa during a recent trip to Central and South America. | Office of Sen. Mike Lee

As a true believer in free trade, Lee said he doesn’t see tension between his support for free trade and wanting to keep China’s trade and other ambitions in Latin America at bay. 

“I’m a free trade guy, but I’m increasingly becoming a free trade guy who believes we need to be tough with China,” he said. “In many instances, I think that’s going to mean making trade with China stand in a different category than our general aspiration towards free trade with other countries.” 

One way China has developed influence in Latin America is by getting involved in the funding and construction of infrastructure projects. But Lee said in some cases, political leaders in those countries expressed frustration because the work wasn’t up to the quality that was expected. 

Lee also expressed concern about the potential for China to extend itself militarily into the region. In Argentina, China’s military operates a space observatory with a 16-story antenna. While it’s officially an observatory, a report by Reuters in 2019 said the Chinese military is able to operate the site with very little oversight by the Argentinian government. 

“It’s basically a base, they call it a space observatory,” said Lee. 

“This is a new phase we’re running into, with the Chinese being very aggressive and trying to establish footholds all over the world, including in Latin America,” he said. 

There was evidence of growing ties between China and Latin America during a recent visit by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Beijing. In a press release about the visit China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it sees the “relationship as a high priority on its diplomatic agenda.”

For his part, da Silva said on Twitter after his visit that his purpose was to “work to expand trade and balance world geopolitics.”

Lee said that while the U.S. continues to have good relationships and ties in the region, China’s growing influence is “definitely something to watch.”

While he was in the region, Lee also spoke with Latin American leaders about immigration issues. He said some of the countries they visited are also trying to find ways to deal with the humanitarian, environmental and economic issues related to immigration.

He said this was especially true in Panama, where migrants cross through the Darien Gap, a dangerous portion of the route from South America to the United States.

“It has caused massive humanitarian and environmental catastrophe down there,” he said.  “The Darien pass is a very, very, very difficult place for people to make their way through. … The terrain is very difficult to cross. And it’s caused a big headache for them, because people from Venezuela, Colombia and other South American countries are trying to push their way up into Central America.” 

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Lee said the Biden administration has created a “magnet” for people to take the dangerous trek up to the United States because of the administration’s lax response to an increase in border crossings. 

“The fact that we’ve made it so easy and so profitable for the cartels to make billions and billions of dollars a year trafficking these people, often subjecting them to human sex trafficking, abuse, the most horrific forms of abuse known to human beings, that’s what’s creating this,” he said. “We’re making it so appealing, so profitable for the cartels, and so easy for people to get into the United States without going through the lawful processes.” 

While in Panama, Lee said he had an exchange with President Laurentino Cortizo that underlined the ties the U.S. has in the region. Cortizo quoted back to Lee something he had said to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on a previous trip.

“I used a metaphor to describe the fact that as trading partners we’re going to be better off when we’re doing business close to home and I made some references to the symbol on the Mexican flag, it’s called … the eagle over the cactus,” he said. “The bald eagle and the eagle over the cactus are going be well served in their trade relationship when they fly together.” 

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