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China’s Plans for Latin America: An Even Keel in Turbulent Waters

Photo: World Leaders at the 2016 APEC Summit, 20 November 2016. APEC Peru 2016, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If the Chinese get one thing right, it is timing. Shortly after the US elections, Beijing made public its strategy for engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean, intended to send the world a reassuring signal in times of turmoil. This was in November 2008, amidst the fallout from the global financial crisis and just days prior to the APEC summit in Lima that year.

Beijing’s recent release of a second Policy Paper also seems aimed at reassuring. However, this time it seems that the surprise result of Donald Trump’s win caused the Chinese to hold out on its publication— until after the 2016 APEC summit in Lima had concluded and President Xi Jinping had returned from his state visits to Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

The new document is a third longer than its predecessor and builds on the strength of many years of growing investment and bilateral trade, new multilateral institutions, strategic frameworks and forums for better cooperation instigated by China. The word ‘collaboration’ (hezuo) appears over 140 times in the Chinese text, and makes explicit the desire to work together in every field of human activity, ranging from industrial and technological development to military, political, cultural, educational and environmental efforts. China’s foreign policy is always driven by its domestic needs: political stability, sovereign security, and sustainable development. Its Latin America strategy is no exception: it underscores that the development of China is possible only if other developing countries share this goal and are part of a joint process.

The opening paragraphs of the 2016 Policy Paper acknowledge the complexity of the world at this juncture and the challenges China itself faces, but underscore the country’s commitment to peace, a harmonious world, and a shared future for all. In the wake of the noisy, at times belligerent, protectionist pledges of Donald Trump’s campaign, these commitments have even greater meaning to the region. The document’s closing section, too, seems aimed at setting a distinct tone of openness, by calling for trilateral cooperation with countries beyond Latin America. It is not about new hegemony, but about sharing the burden of ensuring global stability, as well as the opportunities for all involved.

The Chinese national press has made much of a “new” phase of transpacific engagement—the word “new” recurs 38 times in the Chinese text. Although it is not evident what is new in substance, it is a nod to the reality that the value of Latin American exports are falling for a second year in a row, and that a preference for exporting commodities has reduced industrial capacity in the region. Whether this new phase primarily reflects a noble goal on Beijing’s part of sharing its development experience with another region of the world, or whether it aims simply to transfer its excess financial and industrial capacity abroad, these goals are complementary.

And both goals should be welcomed by Latin American governments. Apart from the proven Chinese expertise in the building of roads and railways, ports and energy plants – all elements that are undeniable necessities for economic and social progress – China is now at the forefront globally in renewable energy sources and industry guidelines for sustainable development. As the Washington-based consultant Paulina Garzón has remarked, the environmental standards set by the Chinese mining industry chamber are now the most stringent in the world. Canadian companies often fall far behind, even if they try to make up for it through well-publicised support for NGO work in countries with mining interests. Matt Ferchen at Tsinghua University in Beijing points out that Chinese officials are exploring new approaches and standards for corporate social responsibility and political risk analysis.

Western media and analysts make much of China’s past tendency towards providing greater finance for so-called left-leaning governments in the region. This conveniently sidesteps the fact that China boasts vast financial interests in other regions of the world, including the Northern Hemisphere, and ignores the fact that China follows a needs-driven approach rather than any partisan orientations. The now annual leadership visits have in fact included countries from across the political spectrum, with Premier Li Keqiang visiting both Colombia and Cuba in May of 2015, and the November round of countries including both Pacific Alliance and ALBA member nations: in Ecuador, President Xi inaugurated the Coca-Codo hydroelectric dam and signed a new investment agreement with President Rafael Correa, in Peru he met with newly-elected president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after the two-day APEC summit hosted there, and in Chile, alongside his counterpart Michelle Bachelet, he oversaw the signing of a dozen cooperation agreements.

China trades in many things, but continuity and words, backed by a record of strong economic data, are importantly amongst them. At a time when facts are questioned, words have more power than ever. At a time of instability in global politics and with the new leadership of the United States questioning fundamental premises of the international system, the continuity of China’s declared commitment to help development in Latin America is to be welcomed, and it is not designed to keep anyone else out.


Benjamin Creutzfeldt, PhD, is Resident Postdoctoral Fellow for China-Latin America-U.S. Affairs at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute. He has previously worked in Colombia, Panama, England and the People’s Republic of China, as a lecturer, researcher, auctioneer and entrepreneur.

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