As Chinese engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean has expanded over the last decade, two of the greatest inconveniences for the P.R.C. government have been managing unique relationships with each of the 42 individual countries of the region, and doing so in the shadow of the United States. China’s approach to this problem demonstrates a new assertiveness.

Faced with a similar challenge in relating to the 54 countries of Africa, the P.R.C. created the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which held its first summit in Beijing in October 2000. From the inception of FOCAC, the P.R.C. hoped to do something similar with Latin America and the Caribbean, but until recently, had been unsuccessful in doing so.

That opportunity came In January 2014 at the second annual meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Havana, Cuba, where the gathered members agreed to create a mechanism for collectively interacting with the P.R.C., with the first China-CELAC summit to be held by the end of this year.

The “China-CELAC Forum” is strategically important for the P.R.C. because it allows it to engage with the region as a whole, in a way that excludes the United States and Canada. The action highlights the boldness of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the new 5th generation of P.R.C. leadership in not refraining from an action simply because it might be seen as a threat by some parties within the United States.

In The Spotlight

Ironically, the assembled members’ embrace of a relationship with the P.R.C. also circumvents the traditional argument against CELAC, that nothing important could be decided in the region without the United States.

The nature of China’s engagement with Latin America through multilateral institutions has always put it at a disadvantage in building relationships with the region. The status of the P.R.C. as an “observer” in the Organization of American States (OAS), for example, contrasted with the full membership of the United States in the institution. Even the location of OAS headquarters in Washington D.C. symbolized that, in working through the OAS, the P.R.C. was trying to build a relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean through “Uncle Sam’s house.”

Although the January 2014 communique establishing the forum suggests a key decision to proceed was taken in a meeting between the parties in September 2013 on the sidelines of a session of the U.N. General Assembly session in New York City, the groundwork for the new China-CELAC forum was probably laid in August 2012 when the foreign ministers of Cuba, Venezuela and Chile traveled to the P.R.C. and India in representation of CELAC.

The move is consistent with other actions by President Xi that suggest a greater willingness than his predecessor to symbolically challenge the United States in pursuit of state objectives.

While bold, the move is also consistent with other actions by President Xi that suggest a greater willingness than his predecessor to symbolically challenge the United States in pursuit of state objectives. Such actions include his unprecedented visits to Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Mexico in June 2013 — just three months after assuming the presidency. The stops, made en route to a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama, was the first time that a Chinese leader had concentrated state visits on multiple Western Hemisphere countries all north of Panama, meeting with leaders from an unprecedented total of eleven heads of state from the region, as if to punctuate the point.

Such boldness is also consistent with President Xi’s assertive behavior closer to home, including Chinese naval patrols in disputed waters in the South and East China Seas, and the P.R.C.’s November 2013 Declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in contested airspace.

Although the details of the new China-CELAC forum are not yet clear, it is likely that the organization will function in a manner similar to FOCAC, with a superficial focus on common political positions, but more importantly, as a vehicle for advancing Chinese business with the region through multilateral loan funds, framework agreements in areas such as finance, phytosanitary certifications, and investment projection, plus high-level political attention to (and the official blessing for) important commercial projects.

To the extent that the new forum follows in the footsteps of FOCAC and the objectives of China’s own 2008 White Paper toward Latin America and the Caribbean, it is also likely expand and create a region-wide framework around educational and cultural exchanges, including Confucius Institutes and scholarships for students traveling to the P.R.C. It is similarly reasonable to expect it to work toward a regional framework to expand cooperation in science and technology, telecommunications and space, and military education and training, among other areas.

As with FOCAC in Africa, the initial summit will likely be accompanied by exuberant statements, particularly by leaders from the ALBA states, and the symbolism will likely prompt a new wave of conferences by think tanks in Washington D.C., and possibly, congressional hearings.

The new forum will likely not agree upon a meaningful program of political action.

With respect to questions in Asia, CELAC includes 11 nations which diplomatically recognize the Republic of China (ROC), including Paraguay, all of the nations of Central America except for Costa Rica, and approximately half of the Caribbean. As the China-CELAC summit approaches, the Taiwanese diplomatic machinery in the region will probably be in “overdrive” to ensure that the communique that comes out of the forum does not include support for a “One-China” policy, a euphemism for the recognition of the P.R.C. and not the R.O.C.

As an unintended byproduct, the China-CELAC forum may strengthen the hand of those in Taiwan who are dissatisfied with that nation’s reapproachment with the P.R.C., as the 2016 elections approach. Despite a truce between the P.R.C. and R.O.C. since 2008 in the battle over diplomatic recognition of one versus the other, the countries in Latin America and the Caribbean that maintain relations with the R.O.C. have nonetheless significantly deepened their economic engagement with the P.R.C.

The “de facto” political engagement between these countries and the P.R.C. through the China-CELAC forum thus will bolster the arguments of those in Taipei that the ROC is “losing the peace.”

Beyond the “One China” question, it is likely that the China-CELAC forum will endorse some “principles of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states.” The P.R.C. and the nations of CELAC will find common ground in asserting (without mentioning names) that the United States should not “interfere” in the affairs of either Latin America or Asia. It is also probable, however, that both the P.R.C. and U.S. allies such as Chile and Colombia will seek to avoid antagonistic language regarding the “struggle against imperialism,” although the ALBA regimes will surely attempt to include such statements.

Argentina will seek P.R.C. legitimation of its claims to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, while the P.R.C. will likely seek support for its claims in the South and East China Seas.

While it is unlikely in general that concrete positions will emerge on matters of foreign affairs, if and how it treats territorial disputes will provide insight into its future character as an institution. Argentina will seek P.R.C. legitimation of its claims to the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, while the P.R.C. will likely seek support for its claims in the South and East China Seas. Nonetheless, the number of unresolved territorial disputes in the Americas, including those between Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua in the Gulf of Fonseca, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua over the San Juan River, and Colombia’s resistance to recognizing a ruling by the International Court of Justice in favor of Nicaragua regarding the waters surrounding San Andres Island, will each undermine a meaningful China-CELAC position on territorial issues.

Another important question for the China-CELAC forum will be its ability to form institutions, or to integrate the P.R.C. into CELAC institutions as they are created. The plurality of political orientation and economic interests within CELAC itself has, to date, largely impeded the creation of permanent CELAC institutional structures and region-wide integration agreements.

The P.R.C. will likely offer to help fund and participate in institutions such as CELAC police and military academies, although traditional allies of the United States will probably resist actions that further draw the P.R.C. into the political, security and defense infrastructure of the region in a way that excludes the U.S. China-funded CELAC institutions for fostering education, trade and investment are likely to be more successful, even though more conservative participants will be concerned about government-to-government vehicles that help Chinese businesses expand their foothold in the region in a way that circumvents commercial competition and open bid and proposal processes.

In addition, although it will probably not impact the success of the institution, the P.R.C.’s very logic in creating the China-CELAC forum exposes the contradiction between the P.R.C. preference for dealing with “blocks” and “important powers,” and the “every country is equally important” discourse that it uses in wooing small states.

On one hand, historically, China has been, and has perceived itself as the central actor in Asia, and culturally, has preferred to relate to focus its diplomacy on other “important” powers who can, in turn, ensure that the “lesser” actors within their spheres of influence act in ways beneficial to China. In the contemporary context in dealing with Latin America and the Caribbean, the P.R.C. has similarly designated “strategic partners”— Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and later Venezuela — which were seen as more important and having influence over their neighbors.

Although it is doubtful that the P.R.C. government will say so explicitly, the establishment of the multilateral China-CELAC forum sends a message that is consistent with Chinese diplomacy historically: “Relating to many small states is a hassle; it is better for such states to organize themselves as a block, so as to collectively merit the time and attention of a great power such as China.”

The symbolism of the China-CELAC forum is also an inherent affront the exceptionalism of Brazil. For years, Itamaraty took pride in relating to the P.R.C. through associations such as the BRICS, a kind of “club of exceptional rising powers.”

The P.R.C.’s June 2012 “promotion” of Brazil from “strategic partner” to “comprehensive strategic partner” played to Brazilian pride, suggesting that it was special among its peers in Latin America, in being qualified to interact seriously with the P.R.C. regarding issues of global importance. The P.R.C. will have to re-assure Brazil that relating to it through the China-CELAC forum is not showing the emptiness of its previous platitude and “lumping Brazil in with the rest.”

In the end, the greatest impact of the China-CELAC summit will be to accelerate the Chinese commercial presence in the region, while further legitimizing its presence as a political actor there.

In November 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made clear in his address to the OAS that the “Era of the Monroe Doctrine” is over. The U.S. will not try to prevent the sovereign states of Latin America and the Caribbean from developing relationships with the P.R.C., but such acquiescence makes all the more the responsibility of those states to think clearly about what kind of relationship with China is in their interest and that of the region.


Evan Ellis
About The Author Evan Ellis [Full Bio]
Dr. R. Evan Ellis is Research Professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and author of over 80 works on Latin American security issues, including his new book, "China on the Ground in Latin America.”

China on the Ground in Latin America

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