China's growing influence on international affairs is nowhere more evident than in Latin America, a region pejoratively regarded as the 'backyard' of the United States.
Latin America and the Caribbean are the next stop in China’s global expansion, and the first-ever Chinese white paper for this region, released on 4 November, 2008, doesn’t leave any doubt about China’s intentions. Latin America has ‘abundant natural resources, a good base for economic and social growth and tremendous development potential,’ the document says.
In the November-December 2008 issue of The Diplomat, Peter Hartcher wrote of China emerging from the current financial crisis as ‘a more credible and respected international leader’. This is precisely China’s image in Latin America. China is not only regarded as an alternative to the US hegemony in the region, but it is also seen as a good and credible partner. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, China enjoys a positive image among Latin American countries.
China’s aim in Latin America these days differs dramatically from the 1960s, when the Maoist revolution was the main exporting commodity into Latin America. ‘Chinese policy towards Latin America today is highly pragmatic rather than ideologically driven,’ Professor Gonzalo Paz, a China-Latin American expert at George Washington University told The Diplomat. Professor Paz said this is a ‘new development paradigm that seems to be attractive to Latin American countries.’
A sign of this new paradigm is the growing and wider range of bilateral agreements China has signed with Latin American countries, from education to tourism; from aviation to natural resources exploitation.
The trade between China and Latin America has jumped from US$10 billion in 2000 to US$102.6 billion in 2007, and Beijing has committed to increase its direct investment by around US$50 billion over the next few years. Due to its export boom and favourable terms of trade, Latin America enjoys a healthy surplus.
The Chinese diplomatic model – soft power, multipolar and non-interference – is considered as a real alternative to the US political and economic influence in the region.
‘South-south cooperation’, ‘strategic partnership of common development’ or ‘common understanding’ is the narrative used by Chinese leaders to frame the Sino-Latin American relationship. This has been the narrative used by the considerable number of high-ranking Chinese officials who have become frequent visitors to the region, including President Hu Jintao, who has visited Latin America three times in less than five years. This says a lot.
Dr Adrian Hearn, a China-Latin American Researcher at the University of Sydney and author of the forthcoming book, China and Latin America: The Social Foundations of a Global Alliance, said China’s soft power, technology transfer and integrated development had been the key to this link.
‘The soft power exercised by Beijing relies heavily on the Chinese communities that began flourishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,’ Hearn said.
The first Chinese immigrants in Latin America arrived in Cuba in 1847 and since then have formed well-established Chinatowns in the majority of Latin American countries. Hearn suggests, ‘Chinatowns are key to the soft power exercised by China in the region.’ This is especially the case in Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Costa Rica and Panama, countries with the largest number of Chinese immigrants. ‘Chinatown’s leaders play a central role in making connections and building partnerships.’
China leverages ethnic locals, technology transfer, development
Hearn highlights the northern Mexican city of Mexicali, the heart of the Mexican Chinese community. ‘Here Chinatown leaders have been luring Chinese investors to get involved in the development of the frontera del silicio [silicon border] – a high-tech park for the production of semiconductors and other electrical products.’ This is very much part of the Chinese growth model of building a series of industrial hubs.
Technology transfer is the second way the Sino-Latin American relationship is developing and, according to Dr Hearn, ‘this is. different to the United States and Europe.’ Venezuela is one of the largest producers of oil in the world and had previously been reliant on technicians from the US company Chevron for drilling. China, however, is happily teaching Venezuelans how to do it themselves.