China, the New Good Neighbor

Monday, April 13, 2009

In November 2008, Chinese President Hu Jintao participated in the G-20 global financial crisis talks in Washington and then went on to visit three Latin American countries, ending up at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, Peru. Accompanied by a large delegation of Chinese officials and businesspeople, Hu repeated his 2004 feat of skillfully making friends and influencing people throughout the region.

Just before Hu had left Beijing, the Chinese government released its firstever Policy Paper (PP) on relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, following similar papers on the European Union in 2003 and Africa in 2006. People’s Daily, the organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, editorialized that the PP signaled a "new chapter of China–Latin America relations." Two of China’s leading Latin Americanists emphasized that this was the first time Latin America as a region had been perceived in "strategic" terms. Xu Shicheng called the PP a "guide" to promote the expansion of Sino-Latin relations in all fields, and Jiang Shixue described the document as "a road map for future relations." Bilateral trade increased tenfold between China and Latin America during the first seven years of the new millennium ($125 billion in the first ten months of 2008 alone).

An increasing number of politicians and pundits in the United States are now speculating on the strategic implications for the Western Hemisphere of China’s rapid expansion into Latin America. The exercise really boils down to two questions: Do Chinese history and recent actions give reason to conclude that China now has its sights set on an ultimate strategic conquest of the Americas? If not, are there domestic or external pressures that might push China toward embracing that goal?


Relationships among Chinese, Latin Americans, and North Americans are complicated by deeply held civilizational characteristics that often make it hard for many in each place to objectively evaluate and understand the others, including how the others see them, notably each party’s elevated view of its own moral rectitude and each party’s victim mentality. Three prima donnas on one stage are a handful.

Until two centuries ago China had been the dominant force in much of Asia for several thousand years, a stature reflected in the country’s very name: zhong guo, or Middle Kingdom. Latin America’s self-assumed superiority is elegantly alleged in José Enrique Rodó’s century-old book with characters from Shakespeare’s Tempest portraying Latin America as the cultured Ariel and the United States as the brutish, materialistic Caliban. U.S. hubris is evident in our vaunted "exceptionalism," our tendency to tell other nations how to run their affairs, and our frequent pressure around the world to bring about change according to our presumed national interests.

Also, all three see themselves as victims, with some justification, and are often highly suspicious and defensive as a result. Many Chinese do not yet truly trust the Western powers and Japan, which exploited and occupied China for more than a century, ending only in 1945, not to mention the continued U.S. defense of Taiwan. Many Latin Americans say they have been exploited for centuries by everyone: the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Americans, and even the newly arrived Chinese. We Americans have considered ourselves innocent victims since 9/11.

Foreign analysts worried about the strategic impact of China’s expansion argue that China has an imperialist history and that it either has or will likely develop a global imperialist agenda in the future. Some detect this orientation in the twelve cryptic phrases Deng Xiaoping set down as development guidelines, the two best-known being tao guang and yang hui, meaning "hide brightness" and "nourish obscurity," perhaps implying a crouching tiger or hidden dragon silently seeking prey. Most Chinese, however, reject the charge of an imperial past, and the government repeatedly assures the world of its desire for global harmony.

Latin Americans say they have been exploited by everyone for centuries: the Spanish and Portuguese, but also the British, the Americans, and, in some places, the Chinese.

But China’s borders have ebbed and flowed for thousands of years. Chinese military incursions into the northern and western steppes were usually reactive or pre-emptive strikes against nomadic peoples who repeatedly mounted raids against China. Other moves, as into Vietnam, were simple annexation. At its height, what we might call "Greatest China" consisted of everything under Beijing’s control today plus much of current Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, additional portions of the steppes, and currently disputed offshore territories in the East and South China Seas.

That said, China has never tried to colonize beyond Greatest China. It could easily have done so in the early fifteenth century, when it launched its great naval fleets on seven excursions to as far away as Northeast Africa. Those excursions were power projections intended to gain allegiance to the Chinese Son of Heaven in Beijing, in the spirit of the traditional tributary system. But although the fleets carried ample military forces for conquest, colonization, or favorable trade relations, they in fact did none of these things. And because those early Ming excursions continued for fewer than three decades in an imperial history spanning several thousand years, China’s imperialist tradition is modest indeed by Western standards. Granted, Mao Zedong did provide ideological support for the guerrilla overthrow of governments all over Latin America for about fifteen years, and some wonder whether a steep downturn in China’s economy today might lead back to anything like that period, which was only about thirty-five years ago.

In contrast, the major European countries—and more recently the United States—for centuries colonized, exploited, and tried to overhaul countries all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Within the past decade alone, the United States and others have bombed Yugoslavia, invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, and extended military deployments throughout Asia, to name a few. Meanwhile, U.S. and other Western politicians and military officials lecture the Chinese about what is wrong with their domestic and foreign policies and tell them to change, not infrequently adding, "or else!" To some in Beijing, this suggests the United States in particular is determined to slow down or prevent China’s emergence as a major and distinctive world power.


In fact, China’s apprehensions about the hostility of Americans to Chinese expansion into Latin America are exaggerated. Most officials and analysts largely agree with the March 2008 testimony of Thomas Christensen, then- U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, who opined that although the United States and China have some different perspectives and interests, "in general, we believe that China’s economic engagement with the developing world is a net positive for China and for the recipient countries, which need assistance, investment, trade opportunities, and expertise. . . . We believe that China can serve as an exemplar of how pragmatic economic policy and trade openness can lead to increased literacy, managed urbanization, and poverty reduction."

The economic crisis has thrown the doors wide to a greater Chinese role in Latin America, with its traditionally elitist governments and paternalistic culture, as long as the Chinese economy itself does not collapse.

China’s advance in the Western Hemisphere comes at a low point for U.S. relations and influence in much of the region. Some states, including Brazil and Mexico, have reasonably friendly relations with Washington. But others do not, and even friends are to varying degrees frustrated by perceptions of historical and recent experiences that range from true to mythological, such as the widespread belief that the "Washington Consensus" reforms promoted by the United States during the 1990s actually made living conditions worse in most places. General disdain for U.S. foreign policies worldwide add to the common feeling that the United States is a selfish bully interested only in U.S. concerns—counterterrorism, the war on drugs, and illegal immigration—to the virtual exclusion of the development issues many Latin Americans say are their main interest. On his trip to Latin America in 2007, then-president Bush was more open than before and made a better impression, but much of the negative image remained, stirred up whenever possible by the anti-American populists led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

In fact, Western-promoted globalization contributed enormously to Asia’s increasing prosperity and to one of Latin America’s best-ever periods of economic growth. But the U.S.-sparked financial tsunami of 2008–9, which has crippled economies worldwide, has been a serious setback for the credibility of the United States and many of the programs it has promoted over the years. It is perhaps ironic that in Latin America the consequences of U.S. domestic profligacy and global fiscal irresponsibility have thrown the doors wide open to a Chinese-type agenda (which coincides in important respects with Latin America’s traditionally elitist governments and paternalistic culture). Thus China’s advances in Latin America have come about not by aggressively confronting or circumventing the United States but by Beijing’s calmly walking through doors the United States opened with its mistakes and unpopularity.


Above all, China today wants to invest in the production, transportation, and export to China of Latin American natural resources and commodities. Latin Americans want to sell their commodities and, through trade and foreign direct investment, to stabilize their roller-coaster gross domestic products and reduce dependence on the United States. China’s preference in Latin America is for stable countries with predictable governments that honor contracts, but Beijing is not about to shun more volatile populist regimes that control desirable natural resources. Still, these regimes worry Beijing because they breed instability and potential disruptions in resource production and trade.

Some Latin Americans wonder if Beijing will try to influence Latin American politics, either directly or indirectly. Any intention to do so was reportedly denied in official bilateral talks between Chinese and U.S. Latin Americanists that began in 2007. Top People’s Republic of China (PRC) Latin Americanist Jiang Shixue has noted that Chinese and Latin American political leaders already regularly "exchange views on strategies to improve governance, the management of party affairs, political modernization, and socioeconomic development," and the November 2008 PRC Policy Paper describes an elaborate web of political and related relations being developed throughout the region. Already Chinese entrepreneurs are frustrated by Latin American instability, corruption, and inefficiency, as well as by labor strikes they consider unjustifiable. In time, serious threats to major Chinese investments in the region, or to the safe and efficient use of critical transportation networks and Pacific coast ports, may provoke Chinese involvement in security affairs—just as events in the Caribbean Basin prompted U.S. interventions there a century ago and later.

China’s interests lie with governments that succeed and play by international rules. Beijing also has long had a practice of dealing with regimes of all orientations.

If there is Chinese interference in Latin American affairs, or just a greatly expanded Chinese presence, will it be detrimental to developments in the fields of democracy, broadly productive economic systems, and greater respect for human and civil rights, including the rule of law? This concern is genuine but misses the point when placed in the context of Latin American history. What is now Latin America was colonized five centuries ago by Spain and Portugal and exploited in Iberian interests. But most of the region became independent two centuries ago, which is quite enough time for it to have developed more consistent and stable representative political and legal institutions and productive economic systems—if Latins were inclined in that direction. It is simple scapegoating to argue that Latin America’s failure to develop more popularly responsive institutions in 200 years is Great Britain or America’s fault, and it will be no more convincing to blame China for continuing shortfalls in the future. The buck stops in Latin America.


In the end, Latin America is not a top-priority region for the PRC. While the 2008 Policy Paper elevated the region to the level of a "strategic" interest, Chinese leaders know that Sino-U.S. relations will be their critical international relationship for many years to come. Beijing’s policies toward Latin America will reflect that recognition.

It is unconvincing to argue that Latin America’s failure to develop more popularly responsive institutions was the fault of Britain or America, and it will be no more convincing to blame China for continuing shortfalls.

Several centuries ago China lost its way and "ate much bitterness" because of domestic degeneration, followed and exacerbated by international intervention and humiliation. China’s fate was reversed three decades ago by Deng Xiaoping, who focused on basic, pragmatic, nonideological domestic economic reforms and foreign trade and largely maintained a low profile abroad. The key to Chinese policy in Latin America will undoubtedly be China’s perceptions of how to advance its own national interests. And there is no evidence that China sees its national interests as including a calculated, long-term strategic conquest of the Americas, nor are there historical experiences to suggest China’s inclination to do so. As of early 2009, China’s activities in Latin America and the world have been just about what one would expect from a large, rapidly modernizing ancient nation striving to overcome centuries of failure to take its place as a major player in the modern world.

Today China is urging stability in the Americas, and its burgeoning levels of investment and trade (if they continue in these hard times) will help Latin Americans resolve some of their challenges—if the profits are used wisely. Many Latin American elites will benefit from China’s economic involvement in the same way that they have from working with other foreigners for the past two centuries, but the Latin American people will be long-term winners only if their governments invest in physical and intellectual infrastructure for the future. If this does not happen, most of Latin America will remain the exploited reserve of natural resources it has been for more than 500 years, although the beneficiaries will increasingly be the Chinese rather than Europeans and the United States.