The last armed conflict in the western hemisphere has ceased to exist.
The historic event was easy to overlook, with daily happenings in the Middle East and the United States presidential campaign making headlines every day. But two weeks ago the Colombian government and FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) reached a final an agreement four years in the making, ending a 52-year-old armed conflict. As Colombia prepares itself for a new beginning, many countries are looking at Latin America’s third biggest country and one of the most promising economies in the region as a new platform for business and foreign policy. Decades of violence, insurgent groups, and the war on drugs has pinned Colombia as a dangerous place to visit and invest, but as Bogota turns a page in its dark history into a more prosperous future, the world is coming to Colombia.
The direct effect of ending the conflict would be new questions about the existing presence of the United States and its Plan Colombia, which has been the fueling power economically and logistically in fighting the guerrillas and the war on drugs. The pinnacle of Latin America foreign policy for former Presidents Clinton and Bush, Plan Colombia once lifted Colombia up from what was to be considered an almost failed state. Now, will a peaceful Colombia have need of a U.S. presence? Once the conflict is over, what will happen to all the aid that Colombia has received and the U.S. influence that had become a permanent player in the war? Will the United States withdraw from Columbia, as it has done before in the Middle East — with China to fill the power gap?
Recent years have seen the world shift from an Atlantic-led economy to a Pacific one, where Asian countries including China and Japan are taking more assertive roles in developing relations in all corners of the Pacific. In Latin America, the recently created “Pacific Alliance” unites Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Colombia in an economic and political alliance to better join the new economic norm. Their integration objectives include visa-free travel, a common stock exchange, and joint embassies in several countries.
Meanwhile, even as Latin America turns toward Asia, China’s now worldwide presence and economic opportunities have shifted to what many see as America’s sphere of influence. Within recent years the Chinese presence in Latin America has increased exponentially. China’s foray into Latin America began with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit in 2004, during which the Chinese dignitary emphasized a multipolar world, moving away from the unipolar American-led order. That year trade between the region and China increased to $40 billion, up from $26.8 billion in 2003 and has continued to increase steadily every year since. This economic exchange, relying mostly on cheap manufactured goods from China and commodities from Latin America, fueled the golden years of Latin American economies in the last couple years. But as China’s economy slows down and comes to a “new normal,” many countries are feeling the economic woes that come with a less demand — including Brazil, which has been in a recession for two years now.
Throughout the region China has been able to expand its influence diplomatically and politically; no country represents that better than Venezuela, which with Chinese aid, investment, and arms sales has been able to sustain the United Socialist Party’s regime.
Colombia and China
With its strategic position on the continent, Colombia does not fully fall under the Chinese umbrella of influence. Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Colombia have been rather slow in terms of how dynamic the growth of China’s presence in the region has been over the past few years. All South American countries hold stable relations with China, excluding Paraguay as it recognizes Taiwan. Colombia has established relations with the PRC, but they are not as fruitful and strong as the other regional countries, even though China is Colombia’s second largest trading partner behind the United States.
Besides trade figures, another indicator of the extent of bilateral relations is the amount of loans given to a country by China. According to the Inter-American Dialogue, in 2015 China gave loans spanning different areas, from infrastructure to energy and mining. Venezuela, which by far in the last couple of years has received the most, got 17 loans from the PRC totaling $65 billion. Brazil was second, with eight loans totaling $21.8 billion, followed by Argentina (eight loans, $15.3 billion), Ecuador (11 loans, $15.2 billion), and Bolivia (six loans, $1.6 billion). Colombia did not even make the list. In 2014, Bogota received only one loan totaling $75 million dollars — one of the lowest totals for that year, with other neighboring countries receiving over a billion dollars each from China.
Other countries in the region have followed the same path, experiencing a boom in Chinese investment and loans both private and public, aimed at key sectors dealing specifically with commodities. Politically most countries, with the exception of Paraguay, have been receptive to China’s presence. The free trade agreements signed by Chile and Peru with China show the extensive relations these two countries have developed with the PRC. Argentina also, with its exports of soy and beef, has opened up to China.
The question becomes then, if all countries have been receptive to growing Chinese relations, not only economically, but also politically, why does Colombia not fit in with the regional trend? It offers crucial commodities; it has the third largest population, making it a good market for Chinese products; it is geostrategically placed between the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean; and it is geopolitically influential in the region. Based on this, there is no reason to assume that Colombia does not add an aggregate value to China. The question rather becomes whether Colombia offers a conducive environment to aid in the expansion of Sino-Colombia relations.
With a peace agreement Colombia becomes a country open to diplomacy and foreign investment. The close ties with the United States will continue, but the arena will expand and be more inclusive. Washington says it will shift aid from fighting the war on drugs and the guerrillas to development. Earlier this year President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Washington to celebrate the anniversary of Plan Colombia. High on his agenda was establishing more aid and determining the role the United States will play in post-conflict Colombia.
This leaves a window open for China to increase its diplomatic relations with Colombia. As the second largest trading partner, China has a lot to gain with stronger relations. The post-conflict period will bring opportunities for investment in Colombia’s aging or nonexistent infrastructure. Thanks to its geographic advantage, Colombia has port cities in the Pacific and can serve as a doorway to the rest of South America; with proper infrastructure it can become a strategic entry point for Chinese products and influence. China can be an active partner in developing Colombia’s economy and infrastructure, drawing on its seasoned experience in other developing parts of the world. This would give China one of its biggest gains diplomatically. Colombia, which for so long has been under the umbrella of U.S. influence and which enjoys a growing economic and political presence in the region, can provide leverage to China.
For now the post-conflict expectations bring hope to a country that has been entrenched in an internal conflict for over half a century. As the rest of the diplomatic world scrambles to find a role in conflict-torn regions, Colombia is a place where they can find peace and a hopeful country ready to leave the past behind.
Jairo Muñoz is a Researcher at the Andean Institute for Political Studies. He holds an MSc in foreign policy and diplomacy from Peking University and received his BA from Florida State University.