China’s Strategic Engagement with Latin America

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 22

Chinese President Hu Jintao (L) and Peruvian President Alan Garcia (R)

Ten days before Chinese President Hu Jintao left Beijing to attend the G20 Summit hosted by President George W. Bush in Washington on November 15 (China Brief, November 7), Zhongnanhai released its first policy white paper on Latin America and the Caribbean. The release of the white paper, preceding President Hu’s third trip to Latin America, has been heralded in the Chinese state media as marking a "new chapter" in Sino-Latin American and Caribbean relations (People’s Daily Online, November 17). The white paper identifies political, economic, cultural/social, and security/judicial cooperation as the four major cornerstones of China’s efforts to bolster relations with Latin America. After the G20 Summit, President Hu is making state visits to Costa Rica, Cuba, and then Peru to attend the 16th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Summit, which was hosted in Lima on November 22-23.

During an interview on November 5, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi emphasized that the current global financial crisis requires the attention and cooperation of Chinese and Latin American leaders. Yang added that it is in the common interest of China and Latin American countries to work together in responding to the global financial crisis and stave off its impact on the real economy. While cooperating to reform the global financial system, Yang called on Latin American countries to strengthen exchanges, communication channels and cooperation with China, as well as solidarity among middle powers (, November 5).

At the press launch for the policy white paper, Yang Wanming, the Ministry’s Latin America Bureau chief, stated that the white paper was formulated over a long period of time after informal consultations with Latin American countries. Rebutting Western concerns over its growing military ties with the region, Yang asserted that Sino-Latin American military exchanges are transparent and not directed at any third party. He added that China and Latin American countries also share a common interest in combating terrorism and other non-traditional security issues (, November 5).

In response to questions about those Latin American countries that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Yang said that most countries in Latin America adhere to the "One China policy." He added that while China actively pursues peaceful development in cross-Strait relations, Beijing will continue to develop normal relations with those countries that it does not yet have diplomatic relations; however, it will not object to countries having non-governmental cultural and economic relations with Taiwan (, November 5). Eleven of the remaining 23 countries that still recognize Taiwan are found in Central America and the Caribbean. In spite of repeated calls by Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou for a ceasefire in diplomatic wrangling between the two sides—an initiative that has been controversial domestically in Taiwan because its sharp reversal from the previous Taiwanese administration’s oft-stated foreign policy goal of safeguarding Taiwanese sovereignty first—China’s diplomatic blitz into Latin America comes as a slap in the face to President Ma’s administration, whose approval rating has been tumbling since assuming office in May (China Brief, August 1).

Chinese analysts believe that the timing of the white paper’s release serves both a tactical purpose and marks an important milestone in Sino-Latin American relations. First, it sets the stage for Hu’s participation at the 16th APEC Leaders Summit hosted by Peru, which will include discussions on an APEC response to the financial crisis. Second, it demonstrates the significant progress made in the rapid development of Sino-Latin American relations in recent years (Xinhua News Agency, November 6).

Chiang Shixue, the vice president of the Association for China-Latin American Studies, a non-governmental association that promotes research and people-to-people exchanges between the two sides, said in an interview with Xinhua News that the white paper embodies the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao administration’s comprehensive policy for strengthening China-Latin America relations (Xinhua News Agency, November 6).

According to Chiang, there have been five important developments in Sino-Latin American relations since Hu first visited Latin America in 2004 as president of China: one, there has been rapid economic development, as evidenced by bilateral trade that reached $102.6 billion in 2007 and exceeded even Hu’s original benchmark of $100 billion by 2010; two, cooperation has extended to other areas demonstrated by continuous reciprocal visits by high level delegations on issues such as technology transfer and cultural, medical, environmental cooperation; three, rapid economic development has also created some contradictions and friction in Sino-Latin American relations, particularly in the rise of countries raising anti-dumping cases against China; four, Latin American exports’ reliance on primary goods has transformed to attracting Chinese investments; and five, mutual understanding and communications have strengthened significantly (Xinhua News Agency, November 6).

Xu Shicheng, a researcher with the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the white paper illustrates that Beijing views its relationship with Latin America at the strategic level. Zhongnanhai issued similar policy white papers on Europe and Africa in 2003 and 2006, respectively. Since becoming president Hu visited Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Cuba in November 2004, and Mexico in September 2005. This trip marks the first visits to Costa Rica—which had diplomatic relations with Taiwan up until June 2007—and Peru by a Chinese head of state. According to Xu, bilateral trade between China and Costa Rica was $2.9 billion in 2007, which is a 33.3 percent year over year (YOY) increase, while bilateral trade between China and Peru stood at $6 billion in 2007, which is a 53.6 percent YOY increase; and bilateral trade between China and Cuba was $2.3 billion in 2007, which is a 27 percent YOY increase ( Xu added that relations between China and Cuba are strategically important because China and Cuba are both socialist countries and are both governed by a communist political party, which is why President Hu characterized Sino-Cuban relations as being one between "Good comrades, good friends, and good brothers" (; China Daily, November 19).

An expert cited in a Xinhua news report on November 5 said that China and Latin America complement one another very well on the economic front: Latin America is rich in natural resources and can fulfill China’s increasing demand for primary goods, and China’s fast economic growth can translate to stronger economic growth in Latin American countries, since as trade conditions improve Latin American countries will be able to attract more foreign direct investments (Xinhua News Agency, November 5).

Furthermore, "There is no fundamental conflict of interests between China and Latin America" argues Wang Zhen, the director for the Foundation for International Studies and Academic Exchanges’ Center for Latin American Research and vice president of the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs. Wang believes that along with the growing synergy developing between China and Latin America, both sides need a bigger stage, and therefore strengthened cooperation between China and Latin America is both a “natural course” (shui dao qu cheng) and has strategic significance. Wang concluded that the principle of "mutual respect and mutual trust and expand common ground" outlined in the white paper will guide Sino-Latin American strategic cooperation (Xinhua News Agency, November 5).