Despite the geographical distance involved, over the last five decades Latin America has become a significant area for the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Chinese expansion in Latin America is strictly interconnected with the country’s rise as a global power. Since the first diplomatic ties were established in the 1970s, the Sino-Latin American relationship has developed gradually but uninterruptedly: commercial exchanges flourished in the 1980s; educational, cultural and scientific relations were promoted during in the 1990s; finally, technological, health, military and strategic cooperation has been improving continuously over the last twenty years. This process has partly been favoured by the US disinterest on its ties with Latin America and, therefore, progressively losing its presence on the subcontinent.
In 2013, Latin America’s significance to China was clearly evidenced by the First Meeting of Ministries of Agriculture of China and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) in 2013. The China-CELAC Forum1, which is attended by the respective Foreign Ministers, was established a year later. At that time, Beijing also recognised Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela as “comprehensive strategic partners” for their significant food, energy and industrial production.
In 2016, the PRC published a second “white paper” on relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, defining Beijing’s policy towards the subcontinent. A year later, in the context of the First Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, it was announced that the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) would be extended to the region.
The invitation for Latin American countries to join the BRI was formalised at the China-CELAC Forum in January 2018. At this meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi presented the BRI and stated that Latin America was its “natural extension”. So far, around twenty Latin American countries have adhered to the BRI.
The BRI has generated much interest in the LAC region not only because it encompasses infrastructure projects (such as the construction of railways, highways, ports, pipelines, and housing), but fosters commercial, financial and technological developments and even civilisational dialogue too.
We must also bear in mind that physical connectivity contributes directly to the development of agricultural, mineral and industrial production and creates greater opportunities for investment, technology transfer, trade and social progress.
In addition, when the world witnessed the spread of Covid-19 at the beginning of 2020, most Latin American nations received health and medical help from the PRC, in the form of equipment or advice. In their eyes, China stood out in the concert of nations for the assistance provided, becoming a beacon of global cooperation.
Currently, most Latin American nations have China as one of their top three trading partners, or at least as a leading foreign investor, lender, infrastructure builder and technology transferor. The PRC, in a global context of energy and food scarcity, has in Latin America a trustworthy provider of primary products.
Developments in the Sino-Latin American relationship have a strategic relevance, as they affect US interests. Beijing has more political and economic influence in Latin America than any other competitor to Washington has ever had. At the same time, the current competition between Washington and Beijing affects Latin America deeply.
Washington and Beijing compete not only for trade, technology, and geopolitical areas, but also for partnerships. For this reason, ties with China represent an increasingly sensitive diplomatic challenge for Latin American countries.
At a time when Latin American governments are having to deal with the serious economic consequences of the pandemic, they are also being forced to pick a side between Washington and Beijing. The region’s governments can choose whether they want to remain loyal to their traditional alliance with Washington or strengthen their ties with China. Alternatively, they can try to play both cards and adopt a foreign policy that maintains an equal distance from both poles.
In the light of the US’ current focus on Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, it can be foreseen that Washington will remain unresponsive to Latin America, and that this will result in China expanding its influence on the subcontinent.
Therefore, among other developments, Xi Jinping’s expected third term will be characterised by growing Chinese influence in Latin America. The region will continue to strengthen its ties with the PRC, as it badly needs to leave behind the negative economic effects of the pandemic and put its economy back on track.
Jorge E. Malena/ISPI