China released a new Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean in November 2016. In light of the latest document, it’s time to evaluate whether China has a strategic interest in Latin America.
After long being considered a zone of limited significance, the Latin American region is now one of the emerging priorities for the Chinese leadership. This is evident from four key milestones in China-Latin American relations in the last eight years: the White Paper on China and the Caribbean that was released by the Chinese government in November 2008; the proposal of the “1+3+6” framework for the period 2015-19 by President Xi Jinping at the first Summit of Leaders of China and Latin America and the Caribbean, in 2014; the adoption of the China-CELAC Cooperation Plan 2015-19; and finally last month’s release of China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean.
Starting from its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) identified itself as a member of what was then known as the Third World — essentially, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Although the PRC engaged intensively with Asia and Africa, the country’s engagement with Latin America remained largely constrained. In the 1950s and 1960s, China sought to consolidate the support of the developing nations, including Latin American Countries (LAC) to safeguard national sovereignty and economic development within the framework of anti-imperialism. For instance in 1959, Fidel Castro’s victory in Cuba drew immediate political support from China. Further, in the 1960s China extended its support to the other Latin American nations in their endeavors to reduce U.S. influence.
But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s, following the Sino-American rapprochement, U.S. President Richard Nixon’s momentous sojourn to Beijing, the PRC’s assumption of a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the deepening of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” that countries in Latin America began to expand their relations with China. Even then, relations between China and LAC have increased most rapidly in the last 15 years, after the PRC’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and the country’s adoption of the “going out” strategy.
It is interesting to note that at the turn of the century, China’s active engagement with Latin America corresponded with a period when the countries of the region were undergoing a tumultuous transition to the political left. Left-leaning governments ascended in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Venezuela, and Uruguay; many were largely anti-American in their approach. Their critical position vis-à-vis the United States worked in China’s favor during a period of rapidly expanding ties.
To address the question whether China has any strategic interest in Latin America, it is first and foremost important to understand that the region of Latin America appears within Beijing’s larger framework of advocating its version of “democratizing international relations” i.e. creating a multipolar economic and political international order wherein the Middle Kingdom revives its customary position at the core of international affairs.
Geopolitically, China’s interest toward Latin America and the Carribean is profoundly influenced by its broader policy concerns. For several decades, China had aspired to perform a leading role in the developing world and had adopted an approach to act independently in its ties with the developed world on behalf of the developing nations. As China moves away from the idea of “Third World-ism” toward that of multilateralism, the country is making an endeavour to strengthen its global network of alliances within the prism of South-South cooperation. Consequently, China has ventured into amplifying its strategic synergy with Latin American nations.
Further, China also recognizes the fact that several of these nations have at some point offered support to ward off resolutions by the West condemning Beijing for its human rights record. Especially after a decisive victory in what could have been the first official censure by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 1995, Beijing has progressively sought the votes of the Latin American nations at the United Nations (UN) as well as at other international forums to counterbalance U.S. influence. China seeks the support of the region on issues such as climate change, energy security, economic governance, and cybersecurity, to name a few.
Thus, in the recently published Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean, a clear declaration has been made that China seeks to cooperate with the region’s states on matters of social and economic governance at various multilateral forums such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC), G20, International Monetary Fund, Bank of International Settlements, World Bank, WTO, Financial Stability Board, Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, and the UNSC to attain a more fair and equitable world order. China cooperates with Latin America and the Carribean through various multilateral platforms: the China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Forum, United Nations, Organization of American States (OAS), G5 group (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa), Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), and the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India, China).
Lastly, and most importantly, it cannot be ruled out that the U.S. “pivot to Asia” has driven China into the American “backyard.” These two events must not be observed separately, as they are largely interlinked. China’s increasing penetration into the Latin American region is largely an endeavor to counterbalance the U.S. presence in Asia. However, China is at present testing the waters and seeks to avoid directly antagonizing U.S. hegemony.
There is another strategic consideration: Taiwan. China’s White Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean (2008) and Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean (2016) both mention that “the one China principle is an important political foundation” for Beijing to develop its relations with LAC. Currently, out of a total number of 33 nations, seven (Paraguay, Haiti, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Republic of Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama) Latin American countries continue to maintain diplomatic ties with Republic of China (ROC) government on Taiwan.
Shaheli Das is a Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation and a Doctoral candidate at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University