Time to readjust China’s approach to diverse and difficult Latin America

By Cui Shoujun and Nehemías J. Jaén C. Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-4 18:33:01

A recent Pew poll shows that China's influence in Latin America is now preferred by the locals over that of their northern neighbor, the US. How did China's presence become so strong in the region, and what problems does it still face there?

At the outset of the 21st century, while the US was entrenched first in the war on terrorism, and then, submerged in a persistent financial crisis, China's economic growth raised its global presence, expanding its influence abroad, particularly in Asia and Africa.

Latin America is a very promising market for Chinese products. But US neglect has also paved the way for China to expand its engagement with Latin America.

Despite a successful Chinese "charm offensive," however, there are lingering difficulties.

First at all, China lacks a deep, concrete, and asserted knowledge about the region, let alone a clear guiding engaging strategy.

In China, most universities and think tanks have prioritized the study of the US and the EU, not Latin America, leaving academics and policymakers without a concise and objective assessment of the challenges and opportunities of engaging with the region.

An in-depth analysis of the understanding, principles and objectives illustrated in China's White Paper on Latin America demonstrates that China's strategy is ambiguous and vague.

The obsolete white paper, issued in 2008, was imbedded with a set of abstract and generalized diplomatic terminology and concepts that are hard to implement in reality.

Latin America might be the most fragmented region in the world, with more than 20 political and economic sub-regional groupings. Ideology and foreign policy are still keeping countries in the region apart, and a turn to the left has brought back "anti-imperialist" rhetoric.

As China itself is a unitary actor, it usually tends to view the region in a systemic and unified way, which is an illusion.

Deinstitutionalization and fragmentation have made countries in the Western Hemisphere develop varying degrees of autonomy and diplomatic stance when voicing their opinions to extra-regional actors.

As China expands its links with Latin America based on its increasing demand for raw materials and energy resources, fragmentation in the region becomes more evident.

A stark divide has been drawn between countries that maintain diplomatic ties with the Chinese mainland and those that still recognize Taipei.

For example, countries in the Southern Cone have improved and increased their trade terms with China, while countries in Central America and the Caribbean are increasingly losing trade to China primarily in the US market.

China's current policies toward the region underestimate the complexity of the sub-regional fragmentation, which might produce undesirable results or even bitter lessons for China.

That China does not have formal diplomatic ties with several countries in Central America and the Caribbean has exacerbated the impediments that constrain Beijing from a full implementation of its diplomatic strategies.

The US will challenge China's presence in its sphere of influence, namely "backyard."

China's engagement puts the region at a crossroad on whether to remain close enough to the US or strategically favor China, which in turn increases suspicion among academic and government circles in Washington about China's real intentions in south of the Rio Grande and might deepen strategic mistrust between these two powers.

This may lead to potential conflicts not only among regional countries and China, but also between Beijing and Washington.

China's engagement in the Western Hemisphere will serve as an overall test for China to correct its illusions in foreign relations and to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued it in Sudan and Libya, or left it confused in Myanmar.

Cui Shoujun is research director of the Center for International Energy Strategy Studies at Renmin University of China. Nehemías J. Jaén C. is a research assistant of the Center for International Energy Strategy Studies at Renmin University of China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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