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WikiLeaks: Chinese “Locusts” Spreading into Latin America

January 27, 2011

Tags: WikiLeaks, China, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico


If Wikileaks documents are any indication, Chinese investors might have a big surprise in store as they continue their push into Latin America. In their effort to extract raw resources, the Chinese have fared relatively well in such areas of the globe as Africa. However, recently disclosed U.S. cables hint that Latin America may not prove as pliable for the Chinese. Indeed, during private discussions with U.S. diplomats in Shanghai, Chinese experts candidly admitted they faced a “public relations challenge” in Latin America, and that local residents viewed Chinese businessmen as “locusts” intent on “extracting minerals and natural resources and leaving very little of lasting value behind.”

China is a relative newcomer in Latin America, yet the Asian powerhouse has made a big splash. In its drive to dominate Latin American markets, China is primarily motivated by economic and not political considerations. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have understood that native industry must be provided with adequate supplies of energy, minerals, and other basic raw materials if the Asian powerhouse is to sustain continued economic growth. In tandem with such desires, China has moved aggressively to become Latin America’s second largest commercial partner after the United States.

For their part, the Latin Americans have been content to export their raw materials to China, though many countries have uncomfortable memories of U.S. economic enclaves and may wonder whether the Asian powerhouse will encourage sustainable development and social equity. While China is willing to help construct ports and railroads, such infrastructure projects will be linked to the transport of raw materials and in this sense the Asian tiger is little different from the United States, which historically sought to promote the type of “development” which would merely facilitate the extraction of South America’s resources.

Latin America is Not Africa

In Africa, China found that it could import its own labor, ignore environmental standards and essentially adopt a colonialist approach toward local peoples and resources. Compliant political elites, who displayed scant regard for human rights, made life easy for Chinese investors. But Latin America, having recently witnessed a tectonic shift to the left, is less willing to embrace untrammeled economic development if this comes at a high social and environmental cost.

In contrast to Africa, Latin America has a much more dynamic political culture characterized by combative political parties, labor unions and non-governmental organizations. Though many within Latin American civil society may have looked upon China as the champion of “Third World-ism” at a certain point, some will be less than impressed by the Asian tiger’s shedding of any ideological pretensions in the name of promoting a more politically neutral “multi-polar” world.

WikiLeaks documents shed fascinating light on the many difficulties and contradictions in the incipient Chinese-Latin American relationship. Speaking with officials at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, Chinese experts said their nation’s leaders were interested in paying more attention to large emerging countries like Brazil and Mexico “amid the changing global economic balance of power.” Chinese companies, however, had difficulty understanding the Latin business milieu, and complained about “strong labor unions and cultural conflicts.”

Fundamentally, experts noted, “Chinese investors think Latin America and Africa are the same…but it is easier for them to do business in Africa since Africa's institutions and regulatory environment are less well-developed than Latin America’s.” Chinese workers, meanwhile, had a “different work ethic” from their Latin American counterparts, and as a result many companies had chosen to import their own laborers which had in turn fed “local resentment.” Conscious of the need to improve its public image, China encouraged its companies to take on more local employees, and the Asian tiger had become a substantial donor to the Inter-American Development Bank.

Differing Views on China

Despite these many problems, it is also clear from WikiLeaks cables that Latin America’s view of China depends very much on the individual country. Indeed, while China is viewed as a friend in some nations, in others it is viewed as a threat. In recent years, China has signed free trade agreements with Peru and Chile, two countries which don’t have competitive industries to defend. China has failed to negotiate accords with some of the other larger countries, however, because certain Chinese exports are viewed as more direct threats.

One country which has been particularly wary of the Asian tiger is Mexico. In early 2009, U.S. diplomats at the American embassy in Mexico City wrote Washington that “Mexico’s trade deficit with China and concerns over China’s approach to investment continue to color Mexico’s perception of China as a true partner.” While Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was well received in Mexico, officials were “reluctant to push too strongly for increased Chinese presence.” One top Mexican businessman confided to the Americans, “We don’t want to be China’s next Africa.”

The entrepreneur was referring to “the oft-cited criticism that China has pursued a strategy of seizing the continent’s huge natural resources while dumping cheap industrial manufactured products into Africa’s markets.” “We need to own our country’s development,” the businessman added. Judging from WikiLeaks documents, the Chinese are aware of Mexico’s skittishness. Speaking to U.S. officials in Shanghai, Chinese experts pointed to the “similar industrial structure” between China and Mexico, adding that the Asian powerhouse should “invest more in the Mexican oil industry to counter Mexican concerns about China's growing trade surplus with the country.”

Seeking a South American Gateway

Another nation with mixed feelings toward the Asian tiger is Colombia. In WikiLeaks cables, U.S. diplomats in Beijing remarked that Colombia was actively seeking new economic partners but was still “wary of Chinese motives.” Speaking to the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Beijing, Colombian businessmen expressed their concern that China might “walk all over” Colombia and its people much as the Asian powerhouse had done in Africa. In addition, the Colombians were wary of Chinese investment in mining and hydrocarbons given the Asian tiger’s awful track record on environmental and labor practices [such talk is rather ironic in light of Colombia’s own horrible standards on these counts].

Because Colombian exports compete with those from China, the Andean nation is mainly interested in investment as opposed to signing a free trade agreement with the Asian powerhouse. Originally, China had directed its companies to invest in neighboring Venezuela, but the firms had “dragged their feet.” Reportedly, Chinese businessmen regarded Colombia as more stable and economically open than Venezuela, and therefore a “better base for targeting the rest of Latin America.”

In the long-term China may find that Colombia, which has a much more repressive anti-labor climate than Venezuela, is a country more to its political and economic liking. Indeed, recent business deals suggest that China sees Colombia as its preferred South American gateway. Take for example a Chinese plan to build an auto assembly plant in Colombia. The factory will manufacture light vehicles for export to different regional markets. The Chinese chose Colombia over Chile, Brazil and Mexico and the factory will begin production in 2012.

Brazil: “We Don’t Want to Be Colonized Again”

While Colombia and Mexico are certainly economically important within the overall Chinese strategy, it is the South American powerhouse of Brazil which has become the most indispensable linchpin. China has already displaced the U.S. as Brazil’s chief trading partner and experts predict that between now and 2014 the Asian tiger could invest an average of about $40 billion a year in Brazil. As they establish their key beach head in South America, the Chinese will target specific economic sectors such as telecommunications, infrastructure, farming, oil, biofuels, natural gas, mining and steel.

The most visible sign of burgeoning Sino-Brazil ties is the Açu complex, a mega port which is being constructed near Rio de Janeiro. The vast $2.5 billion facility will open in 2012 and its piers will host fleets of cargo ships including the ChinaMax, a huge vessel capable of holding a whopping 400,000 tons of cargo. In the nearby city of São João da Barra, the local town hall is providing free Mandarin lessons to those who wish to work with an anticipated wave of Chinese guests.

Though the new economic relationship has proven beneficial to both China and Brazil, it is rather lopsided. Indeed, China’s needs have begun to alter the Brazilian economy in fundamental ways. Take, for example, the Brazilian footwear industry which has been decimated by Chinese imports. Caught by surprise by China’s economic rise and burgeoning manufacturing sector, Brazilians worry that they haven’t laid the ground work for a sufficiently balanced relationship, one which will result in sustainable growth and not just small enclaves of prosperity.

Información Selectiva, a Mexican company providing financial news from around the region, recently reported on an eye-opening business meeting which brought together Latin and Chinese executives. During the summit, which took place in Chengdu, Brazilian investor Nizan Guanaes remarked “We were already colonized once and we don’t want to be colonized again. We want to be partners.” It’s unclear whether the Chinese have the patience to put up with such insolent independence. Frustrated by everything from Brazilian bureaucracy to strong labor unions to a more vigilant media culture and stringent environmental laws, the Chinese have found that Brazil is no pushover.

To be sure, the Chinese relationship has brought tangible economic benefits for Brazil. Take for example the local soybean industry which has thrived amidst booming exports to China. For the Asian tiger, soya is a versatile product which is utilized from everything from soy flour to tofu to soy sauce. In my recently published book No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) I discuss the rise of soy boom towns in Brazil and accompanying infrastructure such as highways which are designed to facilitate exports to China. Even here, however, local development has been a mixed bag: while the soybean industry has brought economic gains it has also led to severe environmental downsides and pressures on the Amazon. Meanwhile, paved roads linking Brazil to Pacific ports of call and onward to Asia have cut through the rainforest and exacted a high ecological toll.

Wikileaks cables underscore underlying tensions in the Sino-Brazilian relationship. Speaking with American officials at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, Brazilian diplomats expressed some concern about growing imbalances in bilateral trade. Although Brazil exported some small commercial aircraft to China, in general the South American nation was a mere provider of commodities to the Asian tiger and received higher value-added machinery in exchange. Meanwhile, Chinese investors failed to adequately understand the local Brazilian market and regulations.

As history has shown, the Latin American people do not take kindly to outside powers coming in to the region and reaping maximum economic advantage while failing to encourage equitable social development. For years, it was the United States which raised the political ire of many countries throughout the hemisphere as it set up economic enclaves and propped up compliant elites. So far, the Chinese interest in Latin America has been primarily economic though the Asian giant may be obliged to become more involved in local politics as its interests grow. If China expects, however, that it will get its way in Latin America as easily as it did in Africa then the Asian tiger may find that it has another thing coming.