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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.
When will Brazil throw its weight around on the world stage and actually start to challenge Washington? Judging from Wikileaks documents, that day may be very off indeed. Far from taking a stand against the United States, Brazilian diplomats serving in Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s administration sought to appease the Americans behind closed doors or, at most, express mild criticism. Since Wikileaks documents end in late 2009, we don’t know if incoming president Dilma Rousseff will choose to mimic her predecessor’s non-confrontational foreign policy, but most observers expect continuity. For the South American left, Wikileaks documents serve as a sobering wake-up call and underscore the difficult political work which lies ahead.
Recent cables pick up in 2005, at the height of the Bush administration’s diplomatic difficulties with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. In Brasilia, U.S. ambassador John Danilovich expressed Washington’s “growing concern” about “Chávez’s rhetoric and actions” during a meeting with Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim. Going further, Danilovich sought to set up a joint U.S.-Brazilian operation which would gather intelligence on Chávez. Amorim rejected Danilovich’s entreaties, remarking that Brazil did not see Venezuela as a threat.
Nevertheless, Amorim said the Lula government would be interested in “any intelligence [the U.S.] wished to provide unilaterally.” What was behind Amorim’s interest, and might the diplomat have shared sensitive U.S. intelligence with Venezuela? Like Chávez, Lula came out of South America’s new left and the two shared cordial diplomatic relations, at least publicly. Perhaps, Brazil’s foreign minister hoped to double cross Washington, though frankly such an interpretation seems unlikely given that Lula had reportedly told Chávez to “tone down his rhetoric.”
Furthermore, Lula had “personally persuaded Chávez not to go swimming at a Chilean beach where Chávez intended to proclaim to gathered press that he was bathing in a spot which should be Bolivia's coastline on the Pacific.” Ever since the 1879-1904 War of the Pacific, La Paz has claimed that Chile denied Bolivia rightful access to the ocean and the issue strikes a nationalist chord in the impoverished and landlocked Andean nation. Historically, Chávez has been a leading critic of the more pro-U.S. Chile and a champion of leftist political movements in Bolivia.
The Petrobras Affair
The Danilovich-Amorim détente took place against the backdrop of political instability in the Andes. In Washington, the Bush administration was concerned about coca grower and rising political star Evo Morales, who would shortly succeed to the presidency of Bolivia and become Chávez’s protégé. During his meeting with the U.S. ambassador, Amorim sought to depict Brazil as a reliable regional partner. The Lula administration, which was focused on the “economic exposure of Brazilian companies in Bolivia, along with the threat posed to regional stability by unrest there,” sought to persuade Morales that the Bolivian needed “to act in a democratic fashion.”
Compared to the politically volatile Andean region, Brazil is certainly an island of tranquility and it is understandable that the Lula administration would seek to promote regional calm within its own “near abroad.” There’s always a fine line, however, between promoting stability and diluting South America’s common leftist front. Wikileaks cables suggest that, more often than not, Lula opted for the latter in his dealings with Bolivia. Shortly after the Danilovich-Amorim meeting, the Americans checked in with Lula’s Institutional Security Cabinet and asked if Brazil had a contingency plan “if the Bolivia political situation deteriorates into instability or radicalization that threatens Brazilian interests, especially Petrobras [a mixed private/state Brazilian energy company which had operations in Bolivia] and energy resources from Bolivia that are critical to industry in southern Brazil.”
Brazilian officials frankly admitted that they were “banking on ‘a strategy of hope,’ i.e., that despite fiery nationalist rhetoric during the elections, sensible leaders in Bolivia will not allow radical new government policies or general instability to damage Brazilian energy industries which contribute so massively to Bolivia's economy.” U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Phillip Chicola remarked that Lula’s security apparatus was particularly concerned “about the potential for increased cocaine flows into Brazil from Bolivia in the event of a Morales victory.”
In the wake of Morales’ electoral victory, Lula and Amorim announced they would maintain “strong relations” with Venezuela and Bolivia, but did not seek to “abandon” or “contaminate” Brazil’s bilateral ties to the Bush White House. Writing to Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, Chicola suggested that the U.S. seek to exploit Brazilian-Bolivian tensions in upcoming meetings. It would be wise, Chicola advised, for Shannon to bring up “the grittier, real-world worries of Brazilian law enforcement and intelligence services about the increased threats a Morales presidency may bring in the arenas of narcotrafficking and other cross-border criminal activities.”
In mid-2006, Lula was placed in a further quandary when Morales nationalized foreign oil and gas investments in Bolivia. Publicly, U.S. diplomats noted, the Brazilian president “issued a stunningly bland public statement…recognizing Bolivia's sovereignty to act as it did but reaffirming that Brazil would act to protect the interests of…Petrobras.” In a private meeting with the Americans, however, deputy foreign affairs advisor Marcel Biato painted a more intricate picture. According to him, Bolivia and Petrobras had been involved in “what appeared to be relatively positive discussions.” Later, however, Morales abruptly broke off the talks and “there was a lot of Morales interaction with Chávez.”
At a meeting in Brasilia, Lula was scheduled to “register his concern” about “Venezuelan involvement with Morales on the hydrocarbons issues.” The Brazilians, it seems, were angered when Morales dramatically sent in the army to occupy Bolivian gas fields. In the final analysis, American diplomats noted, Morales was emboldened by Venezuelan support “after hearing that Chávez would (a) provide technical help to get gas out of the ground if Petrobras bails…and (b) buy the product.”
Writing to his superiors in Washington, Chicola noted that “Lula and his foreign policy team could not look worse at this moment. The image of Bolivian soldiers moving into Petrobras installations is vivid and offensive for Brazilians of all classes, and will appear to many as a massive rebuke to the Lula administration's theology of a Brazilian-led new era of ‘regional integration.’ Indeed, in the Brazilian press and popular imagination, Lula is increasingly seen as outmaneuvered, manipulated and flim-flammed by his ‘hermanos,’ Chávez and Morales.”
Adding insult to injury, on the same day that Morales announced the gas nationalization the Bolivian president also stated his intention to carry out agricultural reforms which could affect Brazilian farmers residing within the Andean nation. Numbering some 15,000-strong, the farmers had been gradually moving into Bolivia where they had taken to cultivating soybeans. Chicola noted that “any action taken that would threaten the rights of those farmers would occasion a public outcry in Brazil, probably worse than that caused by the spectacle of Bolivian soldiers occupying Petrobras facilities.” Needless to say, as I point out in my recent book, soybean farming has been highly damaging to the environment and in this sense Brazilian interests run contrary to social progress in the Andes.
All in all, Brazilian officials were exasperated by Morales, a politician who was intent on playing poker with Brasilia but who had no sense of “logic and rationality.” When Chicola “challenged” Biato “about the growing public perception in Brazil that Morales and Chávez are in cahoots at Lula’s expense,” the Brazilian was “laconic.” “What are we supposed to do?” Biato lamented. “We can’t choose our neighbors. We don’t like Chávez’s modus operandi or Morales’ surprises, but we have to manage these guys somehow, and keep the regional integration idea alive.”
The idea that Brazil might have to “manage” pesky Bolivia, much as the U.S. has sought to oversee political developments in, say, Central America, proved irksome to the Lula administration. In the waning days of the Bush administration, Brazilian presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Marco Aurelio Garcia told the Americans that Bolivia’s instability stemmed in large measure from Morales’ highhanded attitude. The coca leader, Garcia declared, had come into office “as if it were a revolution.” Prolonged instability in neighboring Bolivia, the diplomat added, could worsen “like a flammable gas in the air.”
Many Brazilians, Garcia continued, were frankly surprised by Morales’ “confrontational posture” toward Brazil early on and the Lula administration had been compelled to warn Bolivia, like Venezuela before, to “tone down the rhetoric” and to “cease provoking the United States.” Fundamentally, Garcia opined, Bolivia would have to get its political house in order if the country sought to attract foreign investment and maximize its energy potential. A further cable from late 2009, now well into the Obama era, suggests that relations failed to improve over time. Speaking to the Americans, Brazilian diplomats characterized their relationship with Morales as “frustratingly difficult to manage” and expressed ongoing interest in joint counter-narcotics operations with Bolivia and the United States.
Brazil’s Ambiguous Role
Though Brazil has refused to ostracize its leftist neighbors at the behest of Washington, South America’s biggest political and economic powerhouse has acted rather cynically more often than not. Publicly, Lula expressed solidarity with his leftist colleagues in Brazil’s near abroad, but behind the scenes diplomats worked to dilute a common anti-imperialist front. Putting on airs in private, Brazilian diplomats evidently feel their own country is superior and more “mature” than neighboring nations where rabble-rousing populist regimes hold sway. As the U.S. loses geopolitical influence in South America, will Brazil expand its own regional sphere and what are the larger implications? If Wikileaks cables are any indication, promoting revolutionary change could not be farther from the minds of Brazilian officials. Rather, narrow-minded energy and economic interests will guide Lula’s successors.