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#Geoeconomics: as Beijing’s investment approach to Latin America focuses on industries of strategic importance, the EU and US will need to contend with growing Chinese competition


"China is pouring less foreign direct investment (FDI) into Latin America. But while this may seem like a sign of Beijing’s disinterest in the region, data suggests that Chinese companies are simply recalibrating, not retreating. In doing so, they are becoming important players in sectors key to Western interests: critical minerals, fintech, electric vehicles, and green energy. While the European Union and the United States have long been top investors in Latin America, increased competition with Chinese investment now jeopardises their interests in the Latin American industries that will become most crucial to the digital and green transitions."


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So begins an article published by economist Angelo da MelguizoSi-he is visiting the European Council on Foreign Relations and Margaret MyersHe is a senior advisor to USIP's Latin America program.


The number of Chinese projects in Latin America grew by 33 per cent from 2018-2023, compared with the previous five-year period of 2013-2017, even as the total value declined. In other words, Chinese companies are making more investments in the region but are pursuing smaller-scale projects on average. These investments are also more focused on what China calls “new infrastructure“ (新基建), a term which encompasses telecommunications, fintech, renewable energy, and other innovation-related industries. In 2022, 60 per cent of China’s investments were in these frontier sectors, a key economic priority for the country. Beijing also views smaller projects in these industries as incurring less operational and reputational risk, especially compared to some of the large-scale infrastructure investment projects often associated with the Belt and Road initiative.


Like China, the investment priorities of the G7 grouping – particularly the US and the EU – are centring on critical minerals, fintech, electric vehicles, and green energy as they aim to grow and reinforce existing economic and political partnerships in Latin America.


However, both the United States and the EU risk falling short of China's investment strategy in the region, the two authors say.

The US has signalled want for greater economic engagement with the region, especially in sectors of strategic interest. However, to date, US efforts to compete with China remain largely focused on building US domestic capacity in these strategic sectors, even as some US companies, such as Intel, are increasingly focused on including regional partners in their supply chains. Some see opportunity for Latin America in Joe Biden’s landmark legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which is aimed at incentivising the energy transition while also de-risking critical supply chains. For example, certain countries in the region may benefit from preferential market access for their lithium or other key inputs to new energy and technology supply chains. However, the reach of the IRA – which remains a largely domestic policy – does not stretch as far as China’s current investment reshuffle.

The Americas Act, announced by members of Congress in March could generate promising new investment opportunities for the region, as it encourages US companies and others to move their operations out of China, to which Latin America stands as a promising replacement. But Americas Act reshoring would primarily incentivise textiles and potentially medical equipment manufacturing, with less overall focus on the range of “new infrastructure” industries that China is prioritising.


Chinese interests in information and communication technologies reveal a similar story. While the US has focused its policy on 5G equipment sales, China is undertaking a process of vertical integration in Latin American tech sectors that will dramatically boost its competitiveness. For instance, Chinese company Huawei is rapidly expanding its focus to include data centres, cloud computing, cybersecurity, and other services, especially in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. (Computing accounted for a sizable 41 per cent of total Chinese information technology investment in the region between 2018 and the first half of 2023.)


At the same time, Global Gateway, the EU’s proposal for a global investment initiative is yet to reach its potential in the region. Brussels is looking to be Latin America’s partner of choice by building local capacity for making batteries and final products like electric vehicles, as European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen noted last year. Yet even as the EU signals renewed commitment, China is becoming increasingly dominant in the electric vehicle market in Latin America and other regions. China surpassed the US in electric vehicle sales in 2023, with Chinese companies accounting for 45 per cent of total global sales and three times that of Germany’s. What is more, China has invested $11 billion in lithium extraction in the region since 2018, as part of a bid to control a third of global lithium-mine production capacity. Meanwhile the EU has secured some access to lithium as part of trade deals with Chile, alongside other nations, but this pales in comparison to what will be required to fuel the future of EU battery production. Latin America as a whole accounts for an estimated 60 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves. Based on its current levels of engagement in the region, the EU risks falling short of lithium, stalling its battery production and subsequently, its electric vehicle sales, just as China advances in this field.


The window is closing for the EU, the United States and other partners seeking to maintain market share and compete with China in these Latin American sectors, despite the still high rates of U.S. and EU investment in and trade with the region, the two experts write.

Indeed, US automakers increasingly see Chinese competition across the globe as an “extinction-level event.” Ensuring competitiveness in “new infrastructure” and related sectors will require a continuous commitment by partners to building and supporting project pipelines, and to delivering products and services at price points that can compete with China’s subsidised offerings. Both the EU and the US remain critical economic partners for Latin America and are contributing in ways that China is not.


"Still, complacency risks allowing China to take the lead in emerging industries in the region, some of which weigh heavily in the EU’s green and digital transformation. To protect their own future industries, the EU and the US need to first take a longer look at Latin America’s – especially as China vies for a dominant position."

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