Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

[i]China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores[/i] by R. Evan Ellis

Reading Time: 3 minutes

China’s expanding role in Latin America has sparked a cottage industry among academics and think tanks that are focused on the potential for geopolitical competition with the United States. R. Evan Ellis’ China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores represents an important—although in some aspects, overly alarmist—contribution to the growing literature in the field.

Ellis, an assistant professor at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington DC, has produced a remarkably detailed compendium—nearly encyclopedic in scope—of China’s diplomatic, economic, military, and cultural activities in the region. He also draws on extensive field research and interviews (including with Chinese diplomats) to explore the reasons for China’s interest and to examine why Latin American countries are increasingly receptive to Chinese overtures.

The book’s overall conclusion is that the relationship benefits both sides. China is eager to acquire primary resources (grains, oil, copper, iron, meat, and fish meal) for its domestic market as well as find new markets for its exports, such as low-end manufactured and tech goods. According to the author, Latin America is also a potential arena for strengthening Chinese foreign policy aims, such as securing international isolation of Taiwan and developing “strategic alliances as part of China’s global positioning as it emerges as a superpower.” In turn, Ellis notes, Latin American countries are motivated by the search for export markets, Chinese investment capital to fuel development and the desire to “offset the traditional political, economic and institutional dominance of the United States.”

The author presents strong evidence for most of his arguments. The book brims with statistics on trade and investment flows, amplified by the statements of government officials, academics, journalists, and businesspeople. He notes that Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela are key targets for Chinese “strategic” partnerships because of the value of trade and their regional influence.

The Sino-Brazil relationship may be the best example of how motives and interests intersect: bilateral trade surpassed $11 billion in 2007, second only to China’s trade with Mexico. In addition to their growing technology cooperation, Brazil sells China soy, iron and steel, petroleum, meat, and wood products. In return, China sells Brazilians cars, motorcycles, appliances, textiles, footwear, and electronics.

Political and military exchanges are another key facet of the growing relationship with Brazil as well as with other key regional players like Mexico. Moreover, China, as it has done elsewhere in the world, has linked trade incentives and aid to Central American and Caribbean countries with its campaign to end diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.

However, the book exaggerates the threat posed by China to U.S. alliances in Latin America. It incorrectly leads the reader to believe that Chinese activities are a zero-sum exercise, where the result is a potential geopolitical loss for the United States. In a passage that seems steeped in Cold War thinking, Ellis writes, for example, “The growing Chinese presence in Latin America implies that the Western Hemisphere cannot be considered a U.S. sanctuary in a future conflict with the PRC (People’s Republic of China), and that the United States will be forced to devote significant resources to protecting its operations there, as well as in the Asian theater of operations.”

Yet as Ellis notes, Chinese activities are limited to visits and consultations, with the occasional sale of military equipment. Though a foundation for further military cooperation may have been established, China is unlikely to displace the U.S. as the preeminent source of equipment and doctrine. While some populist governments such as Venezuela’s may want to find alternative military suppliers, most Latin American countries prefer security ties to the U.S. both because they are politically important and because they don’t trust China’s longer-term political ambitions.

Despite the breadth and depth of its investments and its many forms of outreach, Chinese policy toward Latin America appears rather conventional. It is rationally pursuing national interests and building for the long term. Similar to other emerging powers, China uses a range of foreign policy tools, from diplomatic, cultural and military to economic, with a heavy emphasis on trade and investment.

Although the book is generally accurate, there are some errors in the text. For example, Hutchison Whampoa Limited—a Hong Kong-based international conglomerate—is referred to as both Hutchison and as Hutchison-Whampoa. Additionally, the first Chinese arrived in Panama in 1854, not 1954. Stylistically, heavier editing would have eliminated some of the redundancy that tests a reader’s attention span.

Ellis’ broad survey helps the reader appreciate the extent of relations between Latin America and China and its historical background. The book also examines the demographics of the Chinese community in each country and the intellectual infrastructure for China studies.

But his argument that Latin Americans see China as a way to offset U.S. dominance is unpersuasive. The U.S. has no reason to worry about Chinese activities in Latin America. It is, in fact, a win-win situation. More international trade will raise Latin American living standards, and an economically healthy and more dynamic Latin America expands the market for U.S. goods, services and investments. The impressive statistics marshaled by Ellis lead, in fact, to a more encouraging judgment: the world is better off as a result of China’s constructive engagement in international affairs, including Latin America.

Read two Letters to the Editor submitted in response to this article.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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