An Overlooked Source of Chinese Influence in Latin America

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 3

Image: A meeting on May 27, 2020 with the Cuban Ambassador to China Carlos Miguel Pereira at ILD headquarters in Beijing (Image Source: Chinese Embassy in Cuba).

Introduction

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) engagement in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is drawing increased scrutiny from U.S. policymakers. The International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (ILD) (中共中央对外联络部, zhonggong zhongyang duiwai lianluo bu) is one of the many Chinese organizations active in LAC. Although its footprint is relatively small compared to larger trade and governmental organizations, the ILD’s emphasis on ideology and on long-term relationship building in its engagements is noteworthy and should be monitored more closely within the context of China-Latin America relations.

The ILD and its Role in International Affairs

The ILD is the functional department responsible for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s external affairs. Since its formal establishment in 1951, it has worked directly under the Central Committee of the CCP to carry out foreign exchanges and conduct foreign policy research (ILD, undated). The principal body for the CCP’s relationship building with foreign political organizations and research institutions, the ILD has cultivated ties with political parties across the ideological spectrum, building influence with an array of constituents in foreign countries. According to the ILD’s website, the department has established relationships with over 600 political parties and political organizations in over 160 countries and regions throughout the world (ILD, undated).

The ILD was built upon the idea of dividing foreign affairs into dealings with other Communist parties and dealings with foreign governments.[1] Although the CCP considers the work of the ILD to be foreign affairs (外事, waishi), it is distinct from other foreign affairs organizations such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the State Council Foreign Affairs Office, or the United Front. As a Party organization—rather than a state organization—the ILD has several distinct advantages over more official bodies. First,  when a majority of countries did not recognize the PRC during the 1950s to 1970s, the ILD was still able to conduct unofficial diplomacy with other Communist parties.[2] Because of this, the ILD arguably has more experience with foreign policy than other foreign affairs organizations. Second, the ILD has the standing and capacity to build relationships with both ruling parties and opposition parties.[3] Finally, the ILD’s activities are cheap compared to more high-profile foreign policy programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Its primary operational costs are travel-related and include sending delegations abroad, receiving visiting delegations and attending conferences overseas.[2]

Because the ILD is a Party organization, its messaging involves more ideology compared to other government ministries. Xi Jinping Thought, a set of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s policies and ideals, heavily influences it (ILD, October 20, 2017). The ILD holds semi-annual ideological training courses for its cadres, which are announced on its website (ILD, undated). At these trainings, ILD officials study documents such as “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想, xi jinping xin shidai zhongguo tese shehui zhuyi sixiang), “Great-Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” (新时代中国特色大国外交, xin shidai zhongguo tese daguo waijiao) and “How to Administer the Party Strictly in the New Era” (新时代如何全面从严治党, xin shidai ruhe quanmian congyan zhi dang) (ILD, January 25, 2018).

CCP ideology and governing practices thus have a major influence on the ILD’s international activities, and ILD meetings are an opportunity for the CCP to practice authoritarian knowledge transfer. According to ILD Minister Song Tao (宋涛), one recent priority has been to “publicize Xi Jinping’s thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era and tell the story of the Communist Party of China.” Minister Song further asserted that ILD meetings “strengthen mutual learning with political parties from all over the world” and are an opportunity to “conduct exchanges of experience in governance” (CCP Members Website, October 23, 2019). The ILD also holds trainings internationally (including in LAC) where it promotes the CCP’s philosophy and experiences in political party building, organization, and administration; economic policy and environmental policy (CCP Members Website, October 23, 2019; ILD, November 24, 2020; ILD, August 25, 2020).

The ILD in Latin America and the Caribbean

Although the ILD’s contacts with LAC countries are less frequent than its contacts with other regions of the world, the LAC is a target for China’s long-term global strategy to cultivate relationships with current and emerging local leaders.[5] Between 2002 and 2017, the ILD held nearly 300 meetings with 74 different political parties in 26 countries in LAC.[3] In some cases, the ILD provided a channel through which the CCP could engage indirectly with LAC governments before they had granted diplomatic recognition to the PRC.

The ILD’s work to “tell the China story well” appears to resonate among at least some leaders in LAC. For instance, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said that “the role that China plays in diplomacy, in the geopolitics of peace, is fundamental” after a January 2020 meeting with the ILD in China (Latin American Herald-Tribune, January 16, 2020). Because the ILD’s meetings with foreign diplomats are relatively infrequent and discrete, they draw little attention in local press and rarely attract criticism. Thus, the ILD allows the CCP a relatively unchecked means for engaging with and influencing LAC politics.

Image: A June 2020 conference organized by the ILD on the theme of “Socialism’s superiority in combatting COVID-19.” Representatives from leftist parties in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela attended (Image source: Cuba Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

A somewhat opaque aspect of the ILD’s activity is its exact role in generating outcomes compared to other organizations such as embassies or trade institutions. It is difficult to credit the ILD with any specific economic deal or concrete diplomatic achievement, since the organization is less involved in sub-national deal making. Readouts of ILD meetings in LAC countries emphasize platitudes such as “exchanges and learning,” “cooperation in various fields” and “[promoting] the development of bilateral relations” (ILD, July 22, 2016). Oftentimes, the only sources describing meetings with LAC leaders are official reports from the ILD itself, and little is known about the substantive discussions that take place in these meetings.

What is perhaps most striking about the ILD’s activities in LAC is the variety and range of political parties with which it engages. ILD meetings have included mainstream political parties in countries considered strong U.S. allies, such as Colombia’s Democratic Center Party (Partido Centro Democrático), as well as staunch critics, such as members of Nicolas Maduro’s United Socialist Party in Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela). It appears the role of the ILD is to facilitate relationship building and maintain strong party ties for the PRC to achieve a broad set of strategic and geopolitical goals in LAC. Such goals range from winning contracts for development projects to cultivating support for the PRC’s propaganda, as well as intelligence gathering and outright support of authoritarian regimes.

In Colombia, a traditional U.S. ally in LAC, the PRC had long failed to break into the country’s business climate in a meaningful way compared to its robust presence in Brazil or Chile (Xinhua, October 18, 2019). ILD Vice Minister Li Jun (李军)  met with Nubia Martinez, the national director of current President Iván Duque’s Democratic Center Party, in 2018 to discuss the “complementary” nature of the Chinese and Colombian economies. A meeting readout focused on forging greater development ties between the two countries (ILD, November 19, 2018). During his first year in office, President Duque visited Beijing seeking increased Chinese investments and pledging to “further step up bilateral ties” (Xinhua, August 1, 2019).

Less than one year later, Bogotá awarded the contract for its metro—a project nearly 80 years in the making—to a consortium of Chinese state-owned enterprises led by China Harbor Engineering Company (CHEC) (China Daily, October 22, 2019; Metro de Bogotá, October 21, 2020).[6] In February 2020, the state-owned Zijin Mining Group Company began production at the Buriticá gold mine after purchasing it from the previous owner in December—and following a decade of stopped work due to local delays (Zijin Mining, October 25, 2020). While it is unlikely that the ILD played a part in local and provincial-level contract negotiations, its meetings with the ruling party no doubt lubricated such agreements and helped Chinese companies to quadruple their presence in Colombia in just four years.

In Panama, another traditional LAC ally of the U.S., the ILD met with members of the ruling center-left Democratic Revolution Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático) in 2015. The meeting stressed trade equity and increasing commercial ties based on like-minded development principles (La Estrella de Panamá, January 22, 2015). Since then, Panama has sought foreign partners for a $30 billion development plan that includes work on the Panama Canal and significant investment in energy independence. Recent trips to Panama by Xi Jinping and other high-level Chinese officials have yielded over $5 billion of Chinese spending on investment, infrastructure development and other areas (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs , June 13, 2017; PRC Ministry of Commerce, August 12, 2019). A proposed project to build a Chinese embassy at the mouth of the Panama Canal—which, apart from the unfortunate symbolism, presented myriad security concerns—fell through after U.S. objections. But China remains the largest contributor to Panama’s canal-related infrastructure projects. These investments are especially concerning for the U.S., which is the source or destination for over 60 percent of goods passing through the Panama Canal and maintains a strategic interest in keeping it open and accessible.[7] The ILD’s contacts with Panama’s ruling party have undoubtedly helped facilitate a rapid increase in Chinese foreign direct investment in Panama in recent years as well as achieving diplomatic recognition of the PRC over Taiwan in 2017.[8]

In authoritarian Venezuela and Cuba, China’s strategic interest in maintaining the status quo has led the ILD to meet with the ruling parties and their representatives on multiple occasions. Last year, the ILD met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and attempted to play a part in resolving the country’s political crisis (La Conexión USA, January 16, 2020). In Cuba, the ILD took part in several meetings with the ruling Communist Party (Partido Comunista de Cuba) to discuss COVID-19 strategies and the “process of building socialism” in both countries (Embassy of the PRC in Cuba, May 27, 2020). Last summer, the ILD organized a conference of left-wing political parties from across LAC with the help of the Cuban Communist Party. The event appeared to primarily advance propaganda goals, namely, demonstrating the “superiority of socialism in the fight against COVID-19” (Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, June 9, 2020).

Conclusion

Although the ILD is not the most important CCP organ—nor is it technically a state organization—it has met consistently with mainstream and ruling political parties throughout LAC and appears to have played a key role in advancing China’s strategic objectives in the region. These aims include deepening trade and investment ties, attempting to win diplomatic recognition for the PRC over Taiwan and supporting authoritarian regimes in Venezuela and Cuba that are anti-American in both their posture and their policy. While the ILD may not be the lead agency in any of these endeavors, it performs a valuable and often overlooked service in maintaining party-to-party ties that can lead to progress and breakthroughs on broader strategic goals.

Linda Zhang is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow in Latin America Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Notes

[1] See: Robert G. Sutter, Historical Dictionary of Chinese Foreign Policy (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011).

[2] See: Anne-Marie S. Brady, “Making the foreign serve China: managing foreigners in the People’s Republic of China” (PhD diss., Australian National University, 2000), https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/147629.

[3] See: Christine Hackenesch and Julia Bader, “The Struggle for Minds and Influence: The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Outreach,” International Studies Quarterly 64, no. 3, September 6, 2020, https://www.die-gdi.de/en/others-publications/article/the-struggle-for-minds-and-influence-the-chinese-communist-partys-global-outreach/.

[4] See: Yu Hongjun 于洪君, “Understand the world development trend and current international relations with new perspectives and methods” [以新的视角和方法认识世界发展大势与当前国际关系, yi xin de shijiao he fangfa renshi shijie fazhan dashi yu dangqian guoji guanxi], Journal of China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong 12, no. 6, November 2018, http://www.daguoce.org/article/99/656.html.

[5] See: Margaret Myers, “Going Local: An Assessment of China’s Administrative-Level Activity in Latin America and the Caribbean,” The Dialogue, December 7, 2020, https://www.thedialogue.org/analysis/chinas-local-level-activity-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/.

[6] CHEC was one of only two remaining companies at the end of the bidding process, which insiders said included late-stage changes in the terms of reference that appeared to favor the Chinese bidder. See: Andrés Bermúdez Liévano, Wang Chen, “Chinese companies win bid to build Bogotá metro,” Dialogo Chino, October 17, 2019, https://dialogochino.net/en/infrastructure/31002-chinese-companies-win-bid-to-build-bogota-metro/.

[7] See: Evan Ellis, “The evolution of Panama-PRC relations since recognition, and their strategic implications for the U.S. and the region,” Global Americans, September 21, 2018, https://theglobalamericans.org/2018/09/the-evolution-of-panama-prc-relations-since-recognition-and-their-strategic-implications-for-the-u-s-and-the-region/, and Mariner Wang, “The role of Panama Canal in global shipping,” Maritime Business Review, September 15, 2017, https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/MABR-07-2017-0014/full/html.

[8] The PRC views Taiwan as a breakaway province and has waged a decades-long diplomatic campaign to prevent foreign countries from recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty under its “One China” principle. Of the fifteen states that maintain official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, nine are in LAC.