IN the last two decades, economic links between Latin America and the People’s Republic of China have been expanding at a dizzying rate.
Bilateral trade in 2000 was just $12 billion (1 per cent of Latin American’s total trade); now it stands at $315bn. In the same time period, China’s foreign direct investment in Latin America has increased by a factor of five.
Since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, 19 of the 33 countries in the Latin American and Caribbean region have signed up to the China-led global infrastructure development strategy.
Infrastructure projects have been a particular focus for Chinese firms. Writing in Foreign Policy in 2018, Max Nathanson observed that “Latin American governments have long lamented their countries’ patchy infrastructure.” China has “stepped in with a solution: roughly $150 billion loaned to Latin American countries since 2005.”
Chinese investment has been widely recognised across the region for its positive economic and social impact, particularly in terms of facilitating government projects to reduce poverty and inequality.
Kevin Gallagher, in his useful book The China Triangle: Latin America’s China Boom and the Fate of the Washington Consensus, writes that “Venezuela has been actively spending public funds to expand social inclusion to the country’s poor. The country … was able to fund such expenditures given the high price of oil in the 2000s–and due to the joint fund with China.”
A similar story can be told about transformative social programmes in Bolivia (under the MAS governments), in Brazil (under the PT governments), in Ecuador (in the Correa era) and elsewhere. And of course China has given indispensable support to socialist Cuba over the course of the last three decades.
Brazil under the Lula and Dilma governments (2002-16) won global acclaim for its unprecedented campaigns to tackle poverty, homelessness, malnutrition and lack of access to education and healthcare. As part of its rejection of the Washington Consensus and its embrace of multipolarity and South-South co-operation, Lula’s administration massively expanded economic ties with China. Then foreign minister Celso Amorim said the Brazil-China relationship formed part of a “reconfiguration of the world’s commercial and diplomatic geography.”
Chinese investment has proven particularly attractive to those governments in the region that seek to protect their sovereignty and improve the living standards of their populations.
Investment from the international financial institutions (most notably the IMF) has typically come with punishing conditions of privatisation, deregulation and fiscal austerity. China’s development loans come with no such strings attached. Gallagher affirms that Chinese banks “do not impose policy conditionalities of any kind, in keeping with general foreign policy of nonintervention.”
Aside from trade and investment, China provides over $5 billion in aid to Latin America each year. Since the start of the pandemic, China has provided around half the region’s COVID-19 vaccine doses. At a recent meeting with the Bolivian community in London, President Luis Arce noted that, in Bolivia’s hour of need, it was China and Russia that got in contact to offer vaccines. Furthermore, China has donated huge quantities of test kits, ventilators, protective suits, masks, gloves and digital thermometers to a range of Latin American countries including Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.
China’s relationship with Latin America has been beneficial for hundreds of millions of workers and peasants in the region; however, not everyone is happy about it. For example, then-US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson–not widely known for his anti-imperialist spirit–accused China in 2018 of being a “new imperial power … using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit.”
This view of China as an imperialist force in the region is not limited to the Trumpian far-right. Reducing Lenin’s analysis to a caricature, some on the left see China’s rising capital exports as an example of imperialism. But imperialism–empire-ism–cannot be defined purely on the basis of foreign investment; if that were the case, we would have to denounce Angola as an imperialist power in Portugal.
Imperialism is, rather, “a process of domination guided by economic interests,” in the words of Canadian author Stephen Gowans.
Latin Americans know only too well what imperialism looks like, in both its colonial and modern forms. They have witnessed CIA-sponsored coups from Guatemala to Chile, from Brazil to the Dominican Republic.
They have witnessed proxy wars against progressive governments, and enthusiastic U.S. and European support for murderous military dictatorships. They have witnessed a punishing six-decade embargo illegally imposed on the island of Cuba (not to mention the continued occupation and use of a corner of its territory as a torture camp).
Latin Americans have suffered the systematic underdevelopment of their continent by the countries of the global North, described so powerfully in Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. They have observed the insistence of Western multinationals that the region should occupy no other place in the global economy than as a provider of cheap raw materials.
They have endured Washington Consensus neoliberalism and austerity; economic strategies that benefitted a tiny elite while millions languished in poverty.
To describe Chinese investment as being “imperialist” is frankly an insult to the masses that have suffered under actual imperialism.
China’s role in Latin America is certainly not considered imperialist by the representatives of the working class and oppressed communities in that continent.
The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez visited China six times over the course of his 13 years as president of Venezuela and was a strong proponent of China-Venezuela relations. He considered China to be a key partner in the struggle for a new world, memorably stating:
We’ve been manipulated to believe that the first man on the moon was the most important event of the 20th century. But no, much more important things happened, and one of the greatest events of the 20th century was the Chinese revolution.
The Chavez and Maduro governments have always encouraged Chinese economic engagement with Venezuela, and consider that an alliance with China constitutes a bulwark against imperialism–a “Great Wall against American hegemonism.”
Chavez spoke plainly about the difference between China and the imperialist powers:
China is large but it’s not an empire. China doesn’t trample on anyone, it hasn’t invaded anyone, it doesn’t go around dropping bombs on anyone.
In 2017, Venezuela’s then foreign minister Jorge Arreaza described the trade and investment deals between China and Venezuela as being set up in a “just, fair and equal manner,” and contrasted China’s win-win approach with U.S. unilateralism and hegemonism.
Fidel Castro–no slouch in the anti-imperialism department–thoroughly rejected the notion that China was an imperialist power.
China has objectively become the most promising hope and the best example for all Third World countries … an important element of balance, progress and a safeguard of world peace and stability.
China’s assistance and friendship has proven invaluable to socialist Cuba; China is now the island’s second-largest trading partner and its main source of technical assistance.
What the U.S. and its allies hate about the China-Latin America relationship is not that it is an example of imperialism, but the opposite: that it is creating space for the defeat of imperialism and hegemonism; it is creating space for sovereign development and the birth of a multipolar world.
China consistently stands with the people of Latin America against interference, sanctions and destabilisation. Its economic engagement is supporting development and improved living conditions. For U.S. politicians whose worldview remains shaped largely by the Monroe Doctrine, such a stance is unacceptable. For the peoples of Latin America, it is a lifeline.