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Chinese Soft Power in Latin America

2013-07-16 16:34:10

(Joint Force Quarterly(1st quarter 2011)) By R . E v a n E l l i s


Protection of Chinese Nationals. As with the United States and other Western countries, as China becomes more involved in business and other operations in Latin America, an increasing number of its nationals will be vulnerable to hazards common to the region, such as kidnapping, crime, protests, and related problems. The heightened presence of Chinese petroleum companies in the northern jungle region of Ecuador, for example, has been associated with a series of problems, including the takeover of an oilfield operated by the Andes petroleum consortium in Tarapoa in November 2006, and protests in Orellana related to a labor dispute with the Chinese company Petroriental in 2007 that resulted in the death of more than 35 police officers and forced the declaration of a national state of emergency. In 2004, ethnic Chinese shopkeepers in Valencia and Maracay, Venezuela, became the focus of violent protests associated with the Venezuelan recall referendum.

As such incidents increase, the PRC will need to rely increasingly on a combination of goodwill and fear to deter action against its personnel, as well as its influence with governments of the region, to resolve such problems when they occur.

Blocking the Consolidation of U.S. Influence in the Region and Its Institutions. The rise of China is intimately tied to the global economy through trade, financial, and information flows, each of which is highly dependent on global institutions and cooperation. Because of this, some within the PRC leadership see the country’s sustained growth and development, and thus the stability of the regime, threatened if an actor such as the United States is able to limit that cooperation or block global institutions from supporting Chinese interests.

In Latin America, China’s attainment of observer status in the OAS in 2004 and its acceptance into the IADB in 2009 were efforts to obtain a seat at the table in key regional institutions, and to keep them from being used “against” Chinese interests. In addition, the PRC has leveraged hopes of access to Chinese markets by Chile, Peru, and Costa Rica to secure bilateral free trade agreements, whose practical effect is to move Latin America away from a U.S.-dominated trading block (the Free Trade Area of the Americas) in which the PRC would have been disadvantaged.

Finally, the PRC benefits from the challenges posed to the dominance of the United States in the region by regimes such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, and its trade and investment with those regimes help to keep them economically viable. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, the PRC is careful to avoid association with the anti-U.S. rhetoric and projects of those regimes, which could damage its more strategically important relationship with the United States.

Limits to Chinese Soft Power

The growth and exercise of soft power by the People’s Republic of China have limits that are important to recognize. As with the sources of Chinese soft power, those limits are not the same as the limits to U.S. soft power. Limits to Chinese soft power in Latin America principally arise from the significant gap between the two cultures, the associated difficulty in learning each other’s culture and language, a lack of understanding of each side by the other, and a pervasive sense of mistrust of the Chinese within Latin America generally.

The cultural gap between China and Latin America touches upon many areas, from differing consumer preferences limiting the appeal of Latin American exports such as coffee and beef, to different attitudes toward authority in business and administrative dealings, which contribute to labor problems and other difficulties where the PRC has operated in Latin America.

One of the most significant barriers between the PRC and Latin America is language. Whereas a relatively significant portion of Latin Americans have some ability in English, very few speak or read Chinese, and even fewer Chinese can communicate in Spanish, although the number is growing.16 Although Chinese-language programs are proliferating in Latin America, the difficulty of and time required for learning Mandarin and the Chinese character set are a powerful impediment to the growth of ties between the two cultures.

Compounding the language barrier is a relative lack of Chinese knowledge regarding Latin America. Apart from major governmental institutes—such as the China Academy of Social Sciences, which currently has the world’s largest Latin America studies program—and truly multinational Chinese corporations—such as Hong Kong–based Hutchison Whampoa, China Shipping, China Overseas Shipping, Huawei, and ZTE—the general knowledge of the region among Chinese businesspeople and government functionaries is limited, restricting the ability of the PRC to develop broad and sophisticated programs to advance its objectives in the region.

Perhaps most importantly, despite the best efforts of Chinese businesspeople and politicians to reach out to Latin America, they are too frequently perceived as “not one of us”—a reality reflected even in Chinese communities, which often remain only partly integrated, despite deep historical roots in many Latin American cities such as Lima and Guayaquil.

Such distance often translates into a persistent mistrust, even where both sides perceive benefits from cooperation. Latin American businesspeople commonly express misgivings, suggesting that the Chinese are aggressive and manipulative in business dealings, or conceal hidden agendas behind their expressions of friendship and goodwill.

Venezuelan officials bury foundation stone at groundbreaking for Venezuela Pavilion at Shanghai World Expo 2010.

Chinese companies in Latin America are often seen as poor corporate citizens, reserving the best jobs and subcontracts for their own nationals, treating workers harshly, and maintaining poor relations with the local community. In the arena of China–Latin America military exchanges, it is interesting to note that Latin American military officers participating in such programs are often jokingly stigmatized by their colleagues in ways that officers participating in exchange programs in the United States are not.

Finally, Chinese influence is diluted by increasing interactions between Latin America and other extraregional actors, such as India, Russia, Iran, and others. Although the PRC is arguably the most significant new suitor of the region, it is not the only alternative. For Nicaragua and populist regimes in the Andean region, Russia provides important alternatives with respect to arms purchases and energy sector investments. An $18 billion commitment by a Russian consortium to develop the Junin-6 oilfield in Orinoco, for example, may have helped to accelerate China’s subsequent commitment to invest $16.3 billion in Junin-4. In addition to Russia, India is increasingly engaging in commercial opportunities, particularly in high technology, services, and commodity sector investments, while challenging the PRC monopoly over “south-south” developing country partnerships in the region. When China cut off purchases of Argentine soy oil, for example, it was India that picked up the slack.

Analysts looking for signs of imminent Chinese coercion or intervention in Latin America are likely to be disappointed. Nonetheless, Chinese soft power in Latin America still raises important national security issues, even if the PRC does not explicitly seek to subvert or marginalize the United States as part of its reemergence onto the world stage.

In Latin America, as elsewhere, China’s currently modest influence is providing it with triumphs of ever-growing scale in strategically important business, culture, and technology arenas. Although no specific event may directly threaten the U.S. national interest, the collective effect is to restructure the global flows of value added and influence in a manner beneficial to China, making the ability of the United States to successfully pursue its own national goals and interests increasingly dependent on the acquiescence of the PRC.

For analysts focused on the “rise” of China in Latin America and elsewhere, the issue is not whether China is a threat, or whether it has the right to pursue its national interests in Latin America and other parts of the world. Rather, it is important to recognize the dynamics that this reemergence creates in a region with close human, geographical, and economic ties to the United States, and to prepare to mitigate the risks, meet the challenges, and rise to the opportunities that China’s entry into Latin America makes possible.

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