Latin America

Pence intensifies warnings about China. Venezuela is Exhibit A

Vice President Mike Pence accused China of seeking to undermine the Trump administration and sow divisions with its allies. And he used Latin America as a pointed example of Beijing’s aggressive moves.

In a speech Thursday to the Hudson Institute, Pence charged Beijing with wanting a new American president and actively interfering in the domestic and foreign affairs of the United States.

“Beijing also aims to extend its reach across the wider world,” Pence said. “Indeed, China is building its own relationships with America’s allies and enemies that contradict any peaceful or productive intentions of Beijing.”

Pence pointed directly at the economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, where he said Beijing has given a “lifeline” to the leaders there through $5 billion in questionable loans. He accused China, Venezuela’s largest creditor, of saddling the Venezuelan people with more than $50 billion in debt that will have to be repaid well after the government of Nicolás Maduro is gone.

And he blamed the Chinese Communist Party for convincing El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Panama to sever ties with Taiwan in an effort to get closer with China, a U.S. trade adversary.

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Pence, as have other Trump officials, attacked Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, the global investment and lending program, as peddling in “debt diplomacy,” fueling greater economic dependency. The Trump administration has repeatedly warned Latin American leaders that the communist government would not think twice about taking Latin American shipping ports and assets, as it has before in other countries.

Mark Feierstein, the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs under President Barack Obama, said the concerns raised by Pence are largely accurate, but questioned the approach.

“By using offensive rhetoric about migrants, stirring trade tensions, and reducing foreign assistance, Donald Trump is helping to create an opening for China in Latin America,” Feierstein said.

Indeed, leaders across Latin America have paid tepid attention to the American warnings. The Chinese have been constructing roads and building technology infrastructures from Argentina to Mexico.

Diplomats tell McClatchy they’d rather work with the United States whom they have more established relations, but they also need cash and investment for new roads, telecommunications equipment and energy systems. And China is willing to provide that investment in ways that the United States has not, dating back to previous administrations.

Pence pointed to Africa and Asia as examples of regions that are now paying a heavy price after long enjoying the appearance of endless financial assistance from China. Sri Lanka, for example, wanted help with a billion-dollar port.

“Two years ago, that country could no longer afford its payments – so Beijing pressured Sri Lanka to deliver the new port directly into Chinese hands,” Pence said. “It may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy.”

From Mar-a-Lago, President Trump gave a statement about the developing relationship he has with Chinese President Xi Jinping after meeting with his Chinese counterparts. "I believe lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away," said Tr

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez