The Asian giant is taking advantage of other powers’ lack of interest in the region

The Economist

WHILE Donald Trump was in Davos last week trying to persuade the global plutocracy that “America First” does not mean “America alone”, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was promoting globalisation, free trade and co-operation in Latin America. For his hosts, the contrast was striking. Mr Trump has insulted Mexico, El Salvador and Haiti, discourages investment in the United States’ southern neighbour, and talks trade protectionism. China, in the soothing words of Mr Wang, offers Latin America a “strategy of mutual benefit and shared gain”.

He was speaking at a meeting between China and the Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a talking shop comprising all the region’s 33 countries. Contrary to some reports, China did not formally invite Latin America to join the Belt and Road Initiative that is the cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy and features big investments in infrastructure in Eurasia and Africa. But it came close, calling Latin America a “natural extension” and “indispensable participant” in the scheme. Labels apart, China is already investing in infrastructure in Latin America.

The meeting marked the maturing of a relationship that has developed precociously in this century. Total annual trade between China and Latin America shot up from almost nothing to more than $200bn by 2014. After stalling for the next two years, Latin America’s exports to China increased by around 30% last year, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), mainly because of an increase in the price of South American oil, minerals and other commodities. China is the largest trading partner of Chile and Peru, and nearly so of Brazil.

The biggest changes are in Chinese investment and lending. Until recently, these focused on oil, mining and Venezuela. Now they are centred on Brazil and Argentina, and are in more sectors. Chinese companies splashed out at least $21bn on Brazilian deals last year, including the purchase of power plants, an electricity distributor and ports. China is upgrading a railway to Argentina’s north-west. According to Margaret Myers of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think-tank in Washington, Chinese loans to Latin America totalled $9bn last year. That is barely half the amount that China lent in 2015 and 2016. The main explanation for the decline is that there was no new money for Venezuela, and only one oil-backed loan.

From Latin America’s viewpoint, the relationship is “really about the money”, says Oliver Stuenkel, who teaches international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas, a university in São Paulo. That is especially so in Brazil, which is recovering from a deep recession. A few Latin Americans worry that Chinese imports are deindustrialising the region and fear economic dependence. But there is little thinking about the geopolitical implications of the relationship, says Mr Stuenkel.

These are considerable, and the Chinese are more attentive to them. If Panama is the only country in the region to have signed a belt-and-road agreement, that may be because China is aware that signing up more countries “would create a strong reaction” in the United States, thinks Ms Myers.

China’s interest in Latin America is not matched by other big powers. The Trump administration has no clear strategy, although Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, plans to visit five countries in the region starting on February 1st. The European Union (EU) remains the largest single source of foreign investment. But the conclusion of a long-awaited trade agreement with Mercosur, which includes Brazil and Argentina, has so far been thwarted by the desire of France and other countries to protect their uncompetitive farmers. “The EU hasn’t worked out clearly what it wants of Latin America,” concludes a new report by the Elcano Institute, a think-tank in Madrid.

The same applies to Latin America in its embrace of China. This brings undoubted benefits. Apart from money, Latin American governments like—and take at face value—China’s stance on global governance and climate change. But the region is entering into a political entanglement with an external power that has no interest in democracy. In a few years, if China has a military confrontation in the South China Sea, for example, some Latin American countries might feel obliged to back their new patron. “China is not yet calling the shots in Latin America,” says Mr Stuenkel. “But its influence is growing by the day.” Latin America should be wary of the conditions that may come with China’s offer of “shared gain”.

Correction (February 8th): This piece previously claimed that China is financing a motorway to Buenaventura, a Colombian port. This is not true. Apologies.