You don’t need to speak Mandarin to get a big smile from your taxi driver in Beijing, Shanghai, or any other major city in China. If the driver is under 40, just say the magic word “Messi.” If he’s older, switch to “Maradona.” Most Chinese love soccer and they have great admiration for Latin American players.
However, beyond that initial smile, your taxi driver (and most average Chinese) will not know much about Latin America. They will be surprised to learn that China relies on Latin America to satisfy the diet needs of its population (soybeans, soybean oil, meat) and the constantly growing demands of the country’s energy and manufacturing sectors (petroleum, iron ore, copper).
In most Latin American countries, if you start discussing the local economy with your taxi driver, it is likely that the conversation will bring up the topic of China. Your driver will have trouble distinguishing the Korean from the Chinese shopkeeper around the corner, but he will know well that China is a sure presence in his everyday life in the form of shoes, clothing, toys, and now computers, motorcycles and appliances.
Trade figures are impressive. Debates are getting more passionate every day. China-bashing is becoming an increasingly popular sport. All these trends are a logical outcome of a commercial relationship between China and Latin America that has skyrocketed from $10 billion in 2000 to about $180 billion in only ten years. China’s sizzling economic growth and its emergence as a global power has come with a rising diplomatic, cultural, and even military presence in the Americas.
China’s expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean, both as a buyer and seller, is felt as a sudden “ desembarco” (landing). While recent polls suggest a tendency to accept China as a newcomer in the hemisphere, there is significant diversity of opinion across countries. While we tend to talk about China-Latin America interactions, the concept of Latin America has become more diluted as countries in the region have pursued different strategies of regional integration. Also, as economists have shown, ten sectors in six countries account for almost all the commodities exports to China. Therefore, China’s impact is uneven and poses very different challenges across the region.
While there is optimism regarding China’s potential as an emerging power, there is concern about the sustainability and impact of China’s growing role in Latin America. China’s landing has triggered new debates focused on development models, Chinese investment in strategic sectors, and dangers ranging from deindustrialization to environmental degradation.
Another potential problem derived from China’s expanding commercial operations and investment in Latin America is an increase in corruption. Both China and Latin America lack transparency in government and businesses often operate outside the formal legal system.
Is China a partner or a competitor? Is it a model to imitate or one to avoid? Is it an ally or a threat? The answer is fairly simple: It is all of the above. The challenge is to make sense of the contradictions, rapid change, and uncertainties that characterize the China-Latin America relationship.
We, at the University of Miami’s Center for Latin American Studies, have identified an unmet demand for high-quality research and serious exchange of ideas on this theme. To explore some of these issues our center will host Miami’s Asia Summit, along with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce later this month as well as a one-day forum on Setting the Agenda for Asia-Latin America at UM’s Coral Gables campus.
Connecting the dots on this complex issue is not easy. It requires experts with diverse disciplinary, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. It demands open-mindedness, bold vision, and celerity in sync with the extraordinary transformations in the Americas. China’s rise is a wake-up call for Latin America. We don’t have time to nap: China has landed — and India is coming next.
Ariel Armony is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami.