China in Central America?

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Few regions in the world wobble the tension of the tightrope governments walk between raw interests and principle in foreign and strategic policy more than Central America. And few have mattered less to Canberra over the decades, generally for sound, realist reasons going to Australia’s negligible commercial and strategic interests there.

Nonetheless, it warrants a momentary excursion into the region’s exotic, intriguing if often tragic environs because it matters so much to the United States, and because of China’s changing relationship with it. This is especially evident in the spate of defections from Taipei—which until recently had enjoyed the recognition of virtually all the region’s nations—to Beijing, reshaping Central America’s economics and international policy settings.

The notion of giant powers pursuing spheres of influence might be an uncomfortable and unacceptable one for Australians thinking about China in the Western Pacific or Russia in its near abroad. But anyone who doesn’t think that Washington has long regarded Central America in this light, and often with terrible consequences, hasn’t been paying much attention to history and international affairs.

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The Mexican dictator toppled in the 20th century’s first great revolution, Porfirio Diaz, best expressed the region’s relationship with Washington in describing the state and fate of his own North American nation. ‘Poor Mexico,’ he lamented, ‘so far from God, and so close to the United States.’

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