Leland Lazarus takes explicit sides in the political race between the United States and China. But at the same time he admits an ambivalent feeling towards the power that competes with his country. This academic and professor at Florida International University (FIU), diplomat and former State Department Official still has Chinese friends. He speaks fluent Mandarin and has fond memories of his time in the Asian power, where he lived for five years.
Lazarus is only 33 years old, and he has a career as intense as eclectic. He worked as a producer at China Central Television; he was an official at the State Department, alternating positions in Washington, Barbados and in the Chinese cities of Shenyang and Beijing. He was a speech writer at the US Southern Command and now he serves as Director of Homeland Security at FIU's Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy. Lazarus hosts LPO on the wild campus of the University of Florida, located in Miami-Dade County. In perfect Spanish, he gives his opinion about the impact that the trade race with China has on Latin America and regrets the United States' lack of interest in the regional neighborhood.
When did your interest in China begin?
I grew up in New York City, but my family came from Panama. In 2012, in the interior of Panama, where there were only cows and fields, I discovered a little store run by a Chinese family. At university, I did my research on the Chinese influence in Panama. One year later, in 2013, Xi Jinping's administration began the Belt and Road Initiative. Now there are 22 American countries signatories to that program. Chinese influence has skyrocketed since then, and it's here to to stay. It is important to know our competitor closely. So I decided to work there. First in the national media.
What did you do on the Chinese TV channel?
I was a producer on a news program about international relationships and on a program called ‚ÄėAmericas Now.' It was about the Chinese communities in Latin America. In Cuba, Panama, Brazil, Argentina, basically supermarkets, stores, laundries, restaurants.
Did you enter the US diplomatic career after that?
Yes, I worked as a diplomat at the American embassy in Beijing and also in Shenyang, a city in the northeast of the country. It took me five years, then I was transferred to the Department of Defense.
What was the experience of living in China from a human and social perspective?
I see China with love and hate. Let's start with love. I still have very close friends. Chinese people are very friendly and warm. They were willing to host foreigners like me. I have very good memories.
Let's talk about hate...
Living in China was a very hard experience due to the presence of such an authoritarian government and Communist Party. It watches you at all times. You cannot access some websites or social networks.
Do you remember any examples of that daily government surveillance?
There is a very impressive one. I was having breakfast and watching a CNN report. And when the journalist was going to report on an event that had to do with China, the connection failed. The screen went completely black for three or four minutes. Then it worked again. It's a very specific example of the control of the party.
How do you define the current rivalry between the United States and China? Does it have elements of the Cold War?
The US government says it is a strategic competition for the 21st century. And it is. A few years ago, the government still hoped to strengthen a link with China. A cooperation policy on extremely important issues for both countries. For example, climate change, nuclear weapons control and peace on the Korean peninsula.
When was that hope for cooperation between the US and China broken?
When Xi Jinping came to power, China's ambition changed. And it changed radically. Now there are many confrontations between the two countries. American leaders are trying to create the conditions so that they can cooperate and compete at the same time, but without any conflict. That's why there are more and more visits by the Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to Beijing, as well as Chinese representatives who have just gone to Washington.
Is it possible to maintain this fine balance of competition with China without it spilling over into the risk of war?
It will be very, very difficult, because the only historical point of comparison we have is the Cold War with the Soviet Union. And thank God the two superpowers of the time avoided a nuclear war, but there were moments when they came very close.
What event - similar to that of the missile crisis with the USSR - could lead to military tension with China?
I hope something like that never happen. But a conflict could happen over Taiwan. That would be drastic and I don't know what could happen if China takes it.
Is China's ambition merely economic?
In general, China seeks economic links. In the last 20 years, trade between China and Latin America has grown. In 2001 it was 18 billion dollars. Last year it was 450 billion. And it could be 700 billion dollars by 2035. Economic relations between China and the region will last. There are more and more investments. There is a nuclear energy factory, another solar one and a space research base in Argentina. Also in the lithium triangle located in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. In megaports, in Chankay, Peru, others near the Panama Canal. These investments bring many benefits to Latin America. But what worries the United States is that some investments can have dual use: commercial and military purposes.
Are there antecedents of this dual commercial and military use by China?
A Chinese state company built a port in the United Arab Emirates and Equatorial Guinea, and after a few years the naval force began to build some developments there for military use. We have not seen this trend in Latin America, but it could happen in five or ten years. We must pay close attention so that it does not happen in our region.
What is the magnitude of the current decline in Chinese economic growth and the crisis in the real estate boom?
There are several economic problems in China. Provincial and municipal governments have a number of debts for the costs of the Zero-Covid policy. And there is a bubble in the real estate industry. More and more multinational companies are shifting their supply chains outside of China, both in India, Vietnam and Mexico. It is a combination of factors that is affecting China's economic growth. And it is very likely that this will impact the Belt and Road initiative. That would mean that Chinese banks or state-owned companies cannot invest in mega projects like those we saw in the last decade.
Do you perceive a decline in the ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative?
The trend is already underway. In 2021, the Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China did not provide loans to Latin America. During the forum to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, which has just taken place in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and other officials said that the projects paid for by China should be Xiaomei, which means small and beautiful in Mandarin.
Do you mean "shrink"?
Exactly, shrink and make sure the other country don't cause too many debts.
Is the attempt to install the yuan as a currency of exchange with Latin America relevant, in an incipient attempt to replace the dollar as currency?
It's too early to say so. Of all international transactions, more than 60% are still dollarized. The other 30% use euros, and only about 2% or 3% use yuan. Although there are leaders like Luis Arce in Bolivia, Lula da Silva in Brazil and the Argentine government who are trying to use yuan, saying that they are going to replace the dollar is very, very premature.
Shouldn't competition with China push the United States to have a greater presence and try to economically seduce Latin America?
It's very curious. Our strategic competitors, China and Russia, spend most of their resources and time in their spheres of influence. There is the case of Russia, with the war in Ukraine and other post- Soviet countries. And of course China with Taiwan and the South Sea. So, why is the United States the only country that has ignored its neighborhood for so long?
Why do you think the US ignores Latin America?
Over the decades we have taken for granted and established that it is already a region of democracy, and without many armed conflicts, without realizing that there is great competition with China. Plus the Chinese aren't killing 100,000 Americans every year. What do kill them are fentanyl and opioids. The precursors come from Chinese factories, but transnational criminal organizations such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel are selling these drugs on American streets. Irregular migration, an important issue for both Democrats and Republicans, also has effects on our national security. So, we should spend more time strengthening our links in this region to handle problems that will otherwise affect our security.
But paying attention to the region has a cost in multi million-dollar investments that not everyone wants to pay...
Exactly. I know that recently the Commander of the Southern Command, Laura Richardson, had a meeting with the Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, and with some private sector executives to try to encourage them to invest more in the region. It's going to be a challenge because the private sector does not see this region as favorable due to deep-rooted corruption. This corruption must be dealt with to encourage more investments.
Joe Biden's administration has some incipient policies along those lines. What importance do you give them?
The Government has a new policy: the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity (APEP). That should be an alternative, an option to the Belt and Road, but we have not yet seen they money that comes with this policy. I think we have to combine more money and resources with the nice words that officials say. An additional issue is that we have many tools from different institutions and government sectors, but the problem is the lack of coordination. We have to centralize and harmonize USAID (US Agency for International Development), with the agency for international development, the Financial Development Cooperation FIC, among other tools.
By not having a free trade agreement with the US, Argentina demands that the Biden government make an exception within the Inflation Reduction Law to facilitate lithium exports. Do you think this is an indicator of the greater interest in Latin America that you demand?
Of course. Those are very small changes on our part that would be important for our partners like Argentina. Because of the countries that form the Lithium Triangle, only Chile benefits from this new law on inflation. It must be changed, Argentina must be included.
In the debates of the Republican candidates, Latin America was not a topic, except for the demands to strengthen the border and make a military deployment in Mexico. Will that be the tone of the campaign?
It's a shame that Latin America is not part of the campaign. But it's just starting. And of course illegal immigration is an issue that Republicans are going to use as a stick to hit Biden's administration. But any candidate has to realize the importance of this region to our national security. They must admit it. And also pay attention to China's growing influence in some illegal activities.
Illegal fishing. In addition, there are individuals involved in money laundering, linked to cryptocurrencies, helping the cartels. The sale of wild animals. Human trafficking. There are more and more Chinese people arriving in Ecuador and crossing the US border. Factories and pharmaceutical companies are selling fentanyl precursors. There is Chinese presence in illegal activities, and we are not paying attention to curb it.
Isn't there a risk of awakening a certain "Chinophobia" among citizens? In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis limited the purchase of Chinese houses and removed subsidies from schools tied to that country.
Yes, there is a risk. And I hope that the history of McCarthyism is not repeated, when actors who supposedly had ties to the Soviet Union were attacked and criticized. Or that of the Second World War, when American citizens of Japanese and German origin were persecuted. It's important to find a balance between keeping the door open for Chinese immigrants, respecting the contribution they have made to our society, both in business, research and government service, but at the same time protecting the nation. Because the Chinese government is using all available levers to try to carry out espionage, steal secrets from the State and American companies. And it uses the Chinese diaspora to try to serve its interests.
Are you in favor of regulating or prohibiting the use of TikTok, a social network of Chinese origin, as some congressmen propose?
I have Gen Z friends who use TikTok. It's a social network to publish videos of cats and dogs. I don't think there is a threat behind it. But at the same time I know, because I have also used another Chinese social network called WeChat, WeShin, that the National Security Law in China requires that any company must share information about its users with the government. And both WeChat and TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, have to abide by that law. So, who can say that during the campaign some officials could use TikTok to try to influence the thoughts of Americans? The Chinese government is an expert at spreading disinformation.
What is the scope in Biden's nearshoring policy and the attempts to set up supply chains in allied countries in Latin America?
We are seeing this strategy in action. President Biden has just visited India and Vietnam to highlight the importance of those two countries as producers of semiconductors, replacing China in manufacturing. There are more and more countries choosing Mexico, for example, to open their factories to take advantage of the inflation reduction law. US officials should see the region as a viable option for nearshoring.
Does it still lack impetus?
I think there is still more attention paid to India and Vietnam but, for example, the agreements with Panama and Costa Rica to open semiconductor centers is a good sign. And we should continue along those lines, because it is much safer for the US to have a closer semiconductor supply chain. That would solve two problems: it would protect our supply chain and it would generate more work in the region, discouraging migration.
Is the flip side of the US disinterest in the Latin American "neighborhood" somehow an anti-American sentiment in the region?
We are on the 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine. And when there are some Republican representatives who propose sending the North American army to Mexico to fight against the gangs, or some leaders saying that we should have a Monroe Doctrine 3.0...
Governor DeSantis proposed it exactly like that...
That exacerbates this thing of anti-Americanism. I think that instead of talking about the Monroe Doctrine we should talk more about the "good neighbor" or "good neighborhood" policy, which was President Roosevelt's during World War II. The only thing our Latin American partners want is more attention, more investment. And it's not that difficult for the United States to give them those two things. But we also have to realized that our Latin American partners do not necessarily see China as a threat as we do.
Does the US assume that China is a threat and Latin America does not?
Exactly. I give you an example: we organize an Africa and the Americas forum on China. So, we invited experts from Africa and Latin America. One conclusion was that the two regions do not see China as such a big threat to their national security, but rather an opportunity, with some concerns that they should manage. The conversation was not how to curb China's influence, but how we can maximize the benefits of its investment and limit its potential threats.
What were the potential perceived threats?
The militarization of some investments, how to avoid the debt trap and protect citizens' information.
Do you consider that democracy is no longer an unquestionable value in both the US and Latin America?
I definitely think that all democracies around the world are facing many challenges. We have seen it in the Middle East: a democracy like Israel attacked by the terrorist group Hamas. A democracy like Ukraine attacked by the authoritarian Putin. And in Latin America the NGO Latinobar√≥metro conducted a survey and revealed that only 48% valued democracy. I doubt that they don't really believe in democracy, but rather that there is a lack of confidence that democracy can protect their interests.
How could this distrust in democracy be reversed?
We must have a reactivation of democratic institutions in the region. It can be done with the fight against corruption. It has to be priority number one. Because I think that after managing corruption, we can attract more investments, build a country of adherence to the law and respect for Human Rights. The US can be an important partner in strengthening these democratic institutions.
What behavior of the Latino vote do you predict for the 2024 presidential elections?
It's a very difficult question. It's not a homogeneous vote. In the state of Florida it is said that it is an unequivocally Republican bloc, but the truth is that there are many Latinos who are neither right nor left. The Cuban-American community is going to support the Republican candidate. He has been far behind Donald Trump during his term, but a lot can change.
What do you think of the Argentine presidential election, where candidate Javier Milei refers to Donald Trump?
Argentina is currently under the microscope. We will have to see who wins the second ballot. It's said that Milei could be the Argentine Trump. They both are seen as outsiders from traditional institutions in politics. But each country has its idiosyncrasies.
Translator: Bibiana Ruiz.
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