China was not one of the 23 countries represented at an Atlanta conference bringing together American chambers of commerce, or AmChams, from around the Western Hemisphere this week.
Still, it loomed large during a luncheon at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, as speakers representing the U.S. government drew a contrast with their prime geostrategic competitor in the presence of top Latin American business leaders.
China has made inroads in Latin America through heavy infrastructure investment and large commodities purchases, but U.S. officials at the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America (AACCLA) conference warned against deepening collaboration with the country, especially when it comes to infrastructure growth.
In a keynote speech, Spencer Bachus, a former Republican congressman from Alabama who now serves on the board of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, said the two countries have different approaches to financing development.
The Ex-Im-backed Pan-American Highway was an early example of how the U.S. works to the benefit of its partners, he said. Instead of bringing in American workers and products, the U.S. underwrote a cement plant in Nicaragua and the labor force in Costa Rica.
He contrasted that with China’s Belt and Road initiative, which skeptics say amounts to a campaign to spread Chinese influence around the world and provide an outlet for its industrial overcapacity.
“China’s approach is to lend the money but then use Chinese labor to build the highway with Chinese labor and Chinese materials,” Mr. Bachus said, later adding: “They have a different goal. They have a lot of labor and they’re looking for a place for them to work.”
He rattled off a litany of China’s alleged ripoffs of local or national governments, from the ports authority of Sri Lanka to a $730 million Chinese-built highway in Jamaica to special economic zones in Laos where companies use Chinese renminbi for transactions. He also read from a handout circulated at the event that outlined in clear terms China’s “debt-trap” diplomacy initiatives and pointed to an article in The Economist that supposedly showed the danger of contracts written in Chinese.
“I would say to all my Latin American friends, when you have a Chinese document, make sure that you have a document in Spanish, Portuguese, English that is controlling,” Mr. Bachus said.
Julie Chung, principal deputy assistant secretary for Latin America at the State Department‘sBureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, also questioned China’s aims, saying the U.S. works to create environments where private investment can flourish, rather than driving things from the government level.
The newly founded U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, which is like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC, “on steroids,” emphasizes elements of technical training and best-practices sharing along with financing. In creating the DFC as the successor to OPIC, the Trump administration raised its investment cap to $60 billion.
“What we are doing is teaching our partners and friends how to fish, not just giving them fish — providing the regulatory, procurement and legal frameworks to be able to catalyze financing in energy, in infrastructure, throughout the entire region of Latin America and the Caribbean,” Ms. Chung said.
She pointed to the “America Crece” or Growth in the Americas initiative, which launched in December, bringing together all agencies of the U.S. government to spur development across the hemisphere.
For its part, the DFC launched a $3 billion commitment with the Inter-American Development Bank toward the infrastructure and energy sectors, with the goal of driving private-sector funds that could increase the total amount to $10 billion.
Ms. Chung also pointed to the digital sector, noting that the U.S. is becoming more active in training countries on how to auction off mobile spectrum and weigh bids from network providers.
This is growing more important, she said, as competition heats up on next-generation standards like 5G connectivity.
She specifically denounced Chinese telecom giant Huawei as being “owned by the Chinese communist party,” although it is not a state-owned company and has taken pains to distance itself from the government, given its founder’s former affiliation with the People’s Liberation Army.
“If you think any of that data is not going to be shared with the Chinese Communist Party, I think you have to think twice,” Ms. Chung said. “Any of the information or data that is coming through Huawei or Chinese networks we know for a fact must be required to be shared with the party.”
Huawei, which has been central to U.S.-China tech disputes, has emphatically denied that its network products can be used for spying, though reports this week revealed that the U.S. has shared intelligence with nations like Germany and the United Kingdom demonstrating that Huawei can access required “back doors” in the systems meant to be used only by law enforcement agencies.
The AACCLA conference was being held in Atlanta for the first time, as leaders of the U.S. Chambers of Commerce, which runs the conference, believed it was time to get outside the traditional Latin American business hub: Miami.
The event gave Atlanta a chance to showcase its business connectivity with the region, featuring Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola, UPS, Delta Air Lines and NCR Corp., which the group visited:
Amazing experience at @NCRCorporation’s headquarters in #Atlanta – our #AACCLA Leaders very much appreciated the tour. “Treat every customer like they are our only customer.” #NCRLife pic.twitter.com/1UUyN0tuFf
— AACCLA (@AACCLA_USCC) February 12, 2020
With 2021 Summit of the Americas set to be held in the United States, some at the event suggested that the city bid for the conference.
Atlanta has a history of swinging of the fences in such endeavors. Its goal of becoming the secretariat for the doomed Free Trade Area of the Americas may have fallen short in the 2000s, but as a consolation prize it saw growth in the number of Latin American consulates and an expanded array of flights to the region.