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US seeks to bolster Ecuador ties as China expands regional role

With Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso by his side, US President Joe Biden has said the United States is looking to expand and strengthen ties with one of its staunchest allies in South America and a country that is getting plenty of attention from China.

Lasso’s visit to Washington, DC, on Monday comes as his nation is on the verge of completing a trade agreement with China, the US’s strongest economic competitor, which this year surpassed the US as Ecuador’s top trading partner on non-petroleum goods.

The already fragile economy in oil-exporting Ecuador was battered by the COVID-19 outbreak. One of Lasso’s top priorities when he took office last year was to sign a free trade agreement with the US. Ecuador wants to join Colombia and Chile as the only other countries in South America to enjoy such privileged status.

But Biden, in the first two years of his presidency, has shied away from entering new trade pacts as he focused on first settling a US economy that has been battered by the pandemic, historic inflation, and supply chain issues exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Today we’re going to keep building on the progress we’ve made,” Biden said at the start of an Oval Office meeting with Lasso. “Together, we’ve made historic strides.”

Lasso was to meet with USAID administrator Samantha Power later on Monday and was scheduled to hold talks with CIA Director William Burns, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as World Bank President David Malpass and Inter-American Development Bank President Ilan Goldfajn before returning to Quito on Wednesday.

Senator Marco Rubio, in a letter to US International Development Finance Corporation CEO Scott Nathan, urged the Biden administration to surge investment into Ecuador to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

“While the Biden administration continues to assert that the US is the ‘partner of choice’ for Ecuador and other Latin American countries, governments and civil society in the region bemoan the lack of American-led, and other Western alternatives, to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) current and future investments,” Rubio wrote.

“I urge you to work with the Ecuadorian government to identify strategic sectors of the Ecuadorian economy, such as telecommunications, infrastructure, energy, and mining, so that Ecuador has options, other than CCP-backed entities, for investment in these areas.”

The alliance has become more important to the US as much of South America has veered to the left, limiting the political space for cooperation with Washington, whose military and political interventions during the Cold War are recalled with bitterness across the region.

Lasso, a conservative former banker, eked out an upset victory in last year’s presidential election over former left-wing strongman Rafael Correa’s handpicked successor. Following his narrow win, he sought to cement a strategic alliance with Washington.

In recognition of the deepening ties, the US Senate last week passed a bipartisan bill, the United States-Ecuador Partnership Act, which seeks to expand bilateral cooperation on the economy, security and environmental conservation. The effort is part of the annual defence bill that awaits Biden’s signature.

Among its provisions are a promise to transfer two excess US Coast Guard cutters to help Ecuador patrol the protected waters around the Galapagos Islands, where China’s distant-water fishing fleet has become an unwelcome presence.

“Our idea is to position Ecuador’s name as a country that respects democracy, with independent branches of government,” Lasso said on Sunday prior to departing for Washington, DC.

While the Biden administration says it is invested in Ecuador’s success, Lasso confronts a long list of significant challenges. Chief among them is the growing influence of criminal gangs — which have been behind a number of recent prison riots — and an economy pegged to the US dollar that has struggled to compete with cheaper production costs in neighbouring countries.

Lasso made no direct mention of his desire for a trade pact during his brief appearance with Biden before reporters on Monday.

Lasso, however, reminded Biden that Ecuador has been a strong ally, including being one of the first in South America to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Without a doubt, yes, we have been allies for decades now,” Lasso said. “And I am here to reaffirm that theory that we share among us as allies in our fight for democracy, peace and justice — not only in the region but also to support your vision throughout the world.”

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