Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Letters to the Editor: AQ Readers and Author of Fall [i]Americas Quarterly[/i] Book Review Square Off

In the Fall 2009 issue, AQ published a review by Gabriel Marcella of China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores. Following its publication, AQ reader, Richard Feinberg,  a professor of political economy at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies of the University of California San Diego, responded to Mr. Marcella’s review, who then submitted a rebuttal in response to Mr. Feinberg’s letter. Mariano Turzi, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, also joined the discussion. The original book review is available online and all the Letters to the Editors can be found on this page.

Commentary on the review by Gabriel Marcella of R. Evan Ellis’ China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores (AQ, Fall 2009). Published November 2, 2009.

Gabriel Marcella responds to the November 2 Letter to the Editor submitted by Richard Feinberg. Published November 4, 2009.

Letter to the Editor submitted by Mariano Turzi. Published November 11, 2009.

Commentary on the review by Gabriel Marcella of R. Evan Ellis’ China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores (AQ, Fall 2009).

Published November 2, 2009.

Dear Editor:

My good friend Gabriel Marcella welcomes the important new book by R. Evan Ellis, China in Latin America: The Whats and Wherefores, a detailed and judiciously balanced inventory of China’s rapidly expanding presence in the region (AQ, Fall 2009); similarly, I offer an affirmative reception in my review in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2009). However, Marcella chastises Ellis for being “overly alarmist,” for “exaggerating the threat posed by China to U.S. alliances in Latin America.” Certainly, Marcella is correct when he notes that, by and large, Chinese trade and investment flows offer a positive sum game, wherein both China and Latin America can jointly gain from economic partnership (it is precisely this positive-sum nature of economics that has always attracted me to the discipline, as opposed to security studies which typically focus on zero-sum competitions). Yet Marcella goes further and seeks to downplay any possible geopolitical rivalry, noting that “Chinese policy toward Latin America appears rather conventional. It is rationally pursuing national interests and building for the long term.” Why Marcella finds such a reasonable characterization reassuring is puzzling: unless we assume that China’s national interests are inevitably convergent with our own. But are they?

Among China specialists that speculate on the Middle Kingdom’s long-term goals, there are deep divisions. Optimists assert or hope that China will seek to integrate itself into the international system by and large as it currently exists, or evolves in response to new challenges, striving to increase its voice and vote but not to radically transform; on the other hand, pessimists look to history and demographics and foresee a China characterized by very divergent political structures and values striving, albeit gradually, to challenge the United States for global leadership and to remake the international system in its own image. Wisdom, probably, lies somewhere in the middle. And much will depend upon how other powers, particularly the United States, react to China’s rise.

But even if one accepts the benign story of China’s emergence, it should be clear, today, that Chinese foreign policy is often not aligned with that of the United States. In trade policy, China is pursuing a tough mercantilism that despite support for the WTO has sometimes stymied multilateral negotiations aimed at more open markets, and that has contributed to the massive bilateral trade imbalance with the United States, costing us dollars and jobs. The labor and environmental policies pursued by Chinese firms investing overseas are anything but progressive; nor are Chinese firms operating abroad particularly transparent or resistant to engaging in corrupt practices. Most notably, Chinese foreign investors and diplomats do not place the protection of democracy—or even the prevention of humanitarian disasters—very high on their list of priorities.

Does this matter to U.S. policy in Latin America? If we are interested in advancing progressive labor practices and environmental sustainability, in attacking corporate secrecy and corruption and in promoting democracy and good governance, we should be concerned if a foreign power with opposing views is growing in influence. Perhaps over time Chinese policies will evolve and mature and the U.S. should encourage China be become a more responsible stakeholder, as Robert Zoellick famously proposed—but that is the uncertain future. In the meantime, we need not exaggerate the current and potential threats, nor should we deny them; too often, the Chinese tend to add their weight, whether marginal or significant, onto the opposing balance.

Oddly, Marcella declares that Ellis is wrong to imagine that Latin Americans see China as a way to offset U.S. dominance. Those regional analysts who typically applaud a strong European, or Brazilian, presence as adding a welcome multi-polarity (offering Latin American governments a means of balancing off U.S. influence) are daily writing that China is now yet another and very welcome pole of power that provides their governments with more margin for maneuver. It may be that such multi-polarity is healthy, but we should not deny that many Latin Americans view China as just that—an offset to U.S. power.

Most obviously, Hugo Chávez sees it that way. The loquacious Chávez is very explicit: he welcomes Chinese—and Russian, Iranian and also European—investments in Venezuelan oil fields, and as markets for Venezuelan petroleum—as not only economic but also as geopolitical offsets to U.S. influence. Chávez knows that his illiberal model is antithetical to the United States, and hence he is building an alternative geopolitical alliance structure that will not oppose but rather assist his domestic ambitions and international projections.

There is another, let us say, tactical matter at play here. In the endless struggles for attention and resources in Washington, the race most often goes to those who build the compelling “threat” scenario. Just read any document coming out of the Department of Defense or from the intelligence agencies—masters at constructing worst-case nightmares. Or for that matter, from the Departments of Energy (global warming), Agriculture (famine and food security) or Health and Human Services (pandemics). Yes, it is more pleasing to base policy on positive opportunities, but—from many years and scars in bureaucratic warfare in Washington—I can report that case is much, much harder to make; your “good news” memo is more likely to float to the bottom of the in-box pile. If Latin Americanists downplay regional threats, even those that are plausibly real, they should not be surprised when Washington policymakers decide to devote their energies and resources to theatres evidently plagued by more urgent dangers.

Richard Feinberg

Read Richard Feinberg’s review of this book in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2009).

Gabriel Marcella responds to the November 2 Letter to the Editor submitted by Richard Feinberg.

Published November 4, 2009.

Dear Editor:

It’s an honor to respond to the critique of my good friend Richard Feinberg, whose standing as a scholar and statesman I deeply respect. Moreover, as they say in Spanish: “es el precio de la amistad.” That’s the price of friendship. His overall concern is that my review tends to downplay Chinese influence and that it minimizes the notion that Latin American countries view China as a “way to offset U.S. dominance.” He also proposes the “tactical matter” of using the China threat to get Washington to focus on Latin America. Though we agree on many points, I offer the following comments:

1. Unquestionably China is expanding its influence in Latin America, for all the reasons that R. Evans Ellis, another friend, documents so well. We can be sure that Washington policymakers have taken notice, for the reason that Feinberg sees: China’s foreign policy interests and values do not agree with ours on a range of issues, from human rights, to labor, the environment, trade, and security. The challenge then becomes to build relations with China and Latin American countries that will expand the community of democratic values and practice.

2. Latin American countries have been diversifying their international relations for reasons that go beyond offsetting U.S. “dominance” (though it’s not clear what dominance means). It’s also about markets and investments, as well as ideological fraternity. Populists such as Chávez may pursue an anti-U.S. agenda via relations with Russia, Iran and China, but the pursuit of “an alternative geopolitical alliance structure” is not the same as a functioning alliance built on common values, complementary capabilities and a decisionmaking process to deal with common threats. Moreover, the durability of the Chávez system is vulnerable if it can’t provide water, electricity, food, and security to its own people.

3. Feinberg makes an excellent point about playing the China card for the purpose of sustained policy focus on Latin America by Washington. I have spent my professional career trying to convince Washington that Latin America is important enough to deserve attention. If my analysis above is correct, using the China card will not produce the sustained policy focus that we want. Eric Farnsworth writes in Poder (November 2009) in a commentary called “Changing the Hemispheric Conversation” that “Partnership requires that hemispheric relations are no longer viewed as zero-sum.” It would be well to heed such advice.

-Gabriel Marcella

Letter to the Editor submitted by Mariano Turzi.

Published November 11, 2009.

Dear Editor:

As a Latin American PhD candidate specializing in China-Latin American relations, I have been following the Marcella-Feinberg exchange with much interest.

For all the arguments mentioned (including Ellis’), there is a key point that has been overlooked, which symbolizes the U.S. intellectual and policy framework toward the region. Latin American countries are manifestly absent from the exchange, mesmerized by the convergence or divergence of interests between the United Sates and the People’s Republic of China. The debate should be refocused into proactive, respectful engagement with Latin American countries. Let’s not be naïve and remember that by a mixture of incompetence and nonchalance, this part of the world was forsaken by America long before China stepped in to fill in that vacuum.

The most serious threats posed to U.S. alliances in Latin America come not from the overtures of an extraregional rising power, but from leaders on Capitol Hill, the White House and Little Havana who repeatedly misread developments in the region or impose their own selfish interests and capture the regional agenda to the detriment of a comprehensive win-win policy. Chinese intentions–or, for that matter, Russian, Iranian or Indian–should matter to the U.S. less than its own capacity to compete for the “hearts and minds” (and wallets) of Latin Americans.

China approaches the same Uribe and Chávez, Lula, and Ortega. The difference lays not in the reception China gets from anti-U.S. governments, but why there has been a backlash against America in the first place. Rather than raising alarm and zero-sum games, resources might be better spent in seducing these countries back into the U.S. camp. This, however, would require self-questioning and soul-searching on the part of U.S. policymakers. But perhaps it is easier and politically more viable to keep playing scapegoat and the blame game.

-Mariano Turzi

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