Victoria Chonn & Nicolás Albertoni

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2017/10/25What China’s “New Era” Means for Latin America

The time has come. Starting October 18, over two thousand delegates gathered in Beijing for the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) —a twice-in-a-decade meeting where important pronouncements regarding the top leadership and the direction of the country’s political and economic policy for the following five years are announced. For the past week, the world’s eyes have been focused on China. Latin America, which is increasingly tied to China both politically and economically, has taken note.

The opening ceremony at the Great Hall of the People began with a lengthy work report from Xi Jinping—the current Secretary General of the CPC and president of China—in which he highlighted the accomplishments of his first term as China’s leader. And while it was not surprising that Xi chose to emphasize the key role of the CPC—referred to as the “backbone” of the nation—in China’s modernization and development course, he was very clear in pointing out that the country was entering a “new era” (xin shidai) under his leadership.

While this congress represents the solidification of Xi’s power, who last year was described as China’s “core leader” (lingxiu)—a title that only Mao Zedong had previously received—it was more than a simple confirmation of his second term. Xi’s report also provided glimpses of China’s acceptance and recognition of its growing global influence. Unlike previous congresses, in which leaders would shy away from describing China as an international power, Xi held nothing back as he pointed out China’s efforts to move closer to the world’s center stage.

So, what does the consolidation of Xi’s power and influence mean for Latin America? In his speech, Xi underlined the importance for China to continue opening up and to further international cooperation through more global partnerships and exchanges. In other words, Xi’s speech doesn’t signal any significant change of course in terms of China’s (already significant) presence in the region. But this does not mean that Latin America should not increase its efforts to establish more balanced partnerships.

For the past decade, China’s ties with Latin American countries have remained concentrated among a few players: Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Peru. But with the slowdown of China’s economy in 2012 and the fall of commodity prices, Sino-Latin American commercial exchanges began to stagnate. Despite this, China has maintained its influence in the region. It remains among the top trade partners for the mentioned Latin American economies, and it continues to establish more investment and financial deals. Additionally, as China continues to place more attention on innovation, green technology, and infrastructure as part of its development strategy, Latin America has the opportunity to explore new sectors in which it can establish (or deepen) existing partnerships. Trade will continue to be the foundation of Sino-Latin American ties, but there’s still room for growth in the services and infrastructure sectors.

Furthermore, China’s “new era” means that the country has become more comfortable with its position as a global leader, and, as such, it will continue to pursue opportunities that will solidify this role. In fact, the strengthening of economic ties has been China’s main soft power mechanism in the region. Although no drastic changes toward Latin America are anticipated, China’s greater confidence brings forth the question of the extent to which China’s soft power in the region will remain largely restricted to trade, and if it is expanded, how leaders in Beijing will leverage its access and economic importance for diplomatic goals.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s outreach to Latin America has been driven by its need for resource security and the One-China Policy—something that Xi has firmly defended throughout his term as President. While China’s use of economic exchanges as a form of soft power has helped the country to affirm its emerging economic prowess and secure a needed inflow of natural resources, the pursuit of the One China Policy in the region has fallen short of Beijing’s goals; there are still 11 Latin American countries that have yet to recognize China diplomatically. Nevertheless, even as China’s international clout continues to spread, Beijing remains firm in not seeking hegemony or in shaping the destiny of the countries it interacts with.

Beginning at the turn of the century, economic and diplomatic ties between China and Latin American countries have progressed more than in the previous four decades combined. The majority of the region has established diplomatic relations with China (most recently with Panama this year). The establishment of the China-CELAC Forum in 2015 and the subsequent pledges to double bilateral trade and investment for the next ten years also indicates that Beijing is paying more attention to the region.

As Chinese leaders set the course for “national rejuvenation” during the 2017 National Congress of the CCP, the countries of the Americas should make a conscious effort to understand the long-term implications for their relationships with China. As China continues to expand its influence under Xi Jinping, Latin American countries should work towards improving mutually beneficial bilateral (and multilateral) relations.

Victoria Chonn Ching is a Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science and International Relations Program (POIR) and a M.A. student in Economics at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on China-Latin America relations, as well as trade and investment policies in emerging and developing countries.

Nicolás Albertoni (@N_Albertoni) is a Ph.D. student in the Political Science and International Relations Program (POIR) at the University of Southern California. His research focuses International Political Economy and Comparative Politics, with a special focus on the Trade Policy-Making Process of Latin America and Asia Pacific countries.

Published on Global Americans, October 24, 2017.