Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has injected billions of dollars in financing and projects for infrastructure and technology around the world. One of the regions most impacted by China’s BRI program has been Latin America, historically the United States’ geopolitical backyard.
Since then, China has been growing increasingly aggressive in its approach to development finance in Latin America. Most major countries in the region have signed onto the BRI, signifying a great momentum shift and increasing geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China in the Western Hemisphere.
Colombia, however, remains one of the last countries not to have joined the BRI. Still, Colombia has been receiving billions in financing from the Chinese government and its various state and state-adjacent enterprises. Among others, China has helped finance the Bogotá metro project, the RegioTram light-rail system, 5G network projects, and various extractive mining operations.
Notably, the response from the Colombian government, public, and various industries to the growing Chinese investment has been mostly positive, according to Colombia Risk Analysis (CRA), a risk consultancy in Bogotá.
In its report, published in April, CRA conducted public opinion polling that found 67 percent of the general population believes that Colombia should strengthen its economic relations with China, with 59 percent arguing that it should do so in the political arena as well.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents agree that Chinese investment benefits the country’s growth and development while creating quality employment. Following this, 54 percent said that the arrival of Chinese multinationals and investment in Colombia should be encouraged, and 58 percent agreed that a free-trade agreement should be negotiated with Beijing.
In the report’s survey, there was also optimism about the future of the relationship and what it means for the country’s values. Three out of five respondents agreed that the relationship between Colombia and China will become more respectful and prosperous “every day.”
CRA’s Communications Communicator and Latin American Specialist Sara Torres told The Diplomat that China was simply answering the country’s needs. “Latin American countries still have to build roads, bridges, and schools; the world keeps spinning. If China is the only country that is offering alternatives to the countries — if there are no other options — then these countries will go with the Chinese, because, in the end, they are pragmatic,” she said.
She added, “China’s non-interventionist approach makes it more attractive to countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Mexico, who are being held accountable by the U.S. and Europe for poor human rights records, while China does not really care. Non-alignment is more about being pragmatic than about ideological commitments.”
Torres also raised optimism about China’s ability to connect Colombian cities to the country’s periphery, like the Amazon and the Pacific coast, balancing and raising living standards throughout the country.
The Colombian public’s optimism is underlined by the fact that more respondents rated the China-Colombia relationship under President Gustavo Petro as being “very good” than under any other president listed.
Torres argued that “there is a conception that because Petro is a leftist, there must be a natural closeness with China, but, that has not necessarily been true, because Petro has demonstrated that he is more anti-business than pro-left.”
Still, there was some nuance to the report’s findings. Only a quarter of respondents agreed that it is better for Colombia to ally with China than the U.S. and Europe. In addition, while most respondents did not consider Chinese companies to be more corrupt than U.S., European, or Colombian companies, most respondents did not agree that Chinese companies complied with labor, tax, prior consultation, and environmental regulations.
Torres mentioned that China, as Colombia’s second-largest trading partner, “is not given the importance that it ought to have [by the public and the government].” Part of this, Torres argued, is due to the fact that Colombia’s relationship with China is relatively new, while its relationship with the U.S. is much older and more multifaceted. As a result, Colombians are simply more familiar with the U.S.
“Colombia should promote more learning about China… having this conversation and publishing this report is a first step,” Torres said, while suggesting that the Colombian government should have a clearer strategy and understanding of its relationship with China.
Still, Torres said that Colombian politicians had shown no interest in the report’s findings, emphasizing that the government is “not actively seeking the advice” of China experts in the country. “Although Colombia has the agency to build a state-led strategy or policy on China, it hasn’t,” she said.
“Understanding how to do business from a Chinese perspective” and “building synergies between the government and private sector regarding China” were also key recommendations made by CRA to the Petro government.
Torres argued that China’s aggressive investment and “niceness” have strings attached, and should not be viewed naively. “What was most concerning in the interviews we conducted was the lack of scrutiny and critical thinking about engaging with China; all engagements should be taken with a grain of salt,” she said.
These results present a stark contrast with opinion polls in the West, which reflect the growing animosity of Western governments toward China in a context of growing strategic competition.
In the U.S., according to Pew Research polling from 2022, 82 percent of the American public has unfavorable views of China. The high negative rating is partly due to Americans’ concerns over China’s policies on human rights, its political and economic partnership with Russia, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The same can be said for other parts of the West. In Europe, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, trade frictions, diplomatic tensions, and concerns over espionage and human rights have also caused more than three-quarters of each country’s population to view China negatively.
More reports like CRA’s should be conducted in emerging economies to highlight this contrast further, as well as to tease out the nuances in every country’s public views of Chinese influence and investment.