China in Latin America: Is the Dragon Here to Stay?

By Ivanova Reyes & Amy Ruddle

Source: Based on Gallagher et al. (2012).

Source: Based on Gallagher et al. (2012).

As China has become a major importer of Latin American & Caribbean commodities, it has significantly increased its financing and investment in the region.  Data on Chinese investment is not complete, but we estimate that it reached 38 percent of the combined financing from the IDB and World Bank to the region during 2005-11, with Venezuela getting the most.  In 2010 China became the third largest outside investor in the region (behind the United States and the Netherlands), and it provided an estimated $22 billion in 2011 – approximately 13 percent of total investment flows to Latin America and the Caribbean.

This investment is likely to continue to grow.  The Chinese government provides tax breaks, lines of credit and other incentives for companies to invest in key industries overseas, and a great deal of its lending corresponds to “finance for assured supply,” such as a  $10 billion loan from the Chinese Development Bank to Brazil’s Petrobras in 2009 in exchange for 200,000 barrels of oil per day.  Currently, according to Gallagher et al. (2012), 72 percent of the Chinese lending to the region is in the oil and mining industries and in related infrastructure projects.  The remaining funds lent in recent years have gone towards other infrastructural developments (21 percent), and towards trade, finance, and communications (7 percent).  Latin American countries have implemented policies aimed to attract Chinese investment.  They generally impose fewer conditions than those demanded by international financial institutions and require less compliance with environmental standards.

Recent surveys indicate that citizens overall view the growing influence of China in the region as a positive thing.  Indeed, Vanderbilt University’s AmericasBarometer found in 2012 that 20 percent of respondents viewed China as already the most influential country in the region, and an average of 63 percent said it had a positive influence.  However, respondents see China as less trustworthy than the United States.  Across those nations polled, roughly 38 percent viewed China as “very trustworthy” or “somewhat trustworthy,” whereas 45 percent had similarly positive views of the United States.

Although the growing Chinese investment and trade may give Latin America and the Caribbean a great opportunity to generate growth, there are several challenges.  If Chinese participation in the mining and oil industries results in environmental degradation, indigenous rights advocates and community organizations already skeptical of commodity driven growth will increasingly confront Latin American states as well as foreign enterprises. In addition, Chinese concentration in the commodities industries has generated strong structural changes in Latin American economies, further relegating manufacturing to a secondary role and raising the possibility of Dutch disease, in which high commodity prices harm other exports by reducing the country’s competitiveness.  It has become commonplace to observe that South America is building a 21st century economy on a 19th century logic of primary product exports. A third concern is that, since Latin America as a region is the smallest recipient of Chinese investment in the world, China will turn elsewhere if governments start putting conditions on Chinese projects.  Ultimately, these concerns make a strong case for Latin American countries to cultivate stronger ties with the Chinese economy while remembering that China’s strategic interest in extractive industries may collide with each country’s own development strategies.

 

 

References

ECLAC. 2010. “Chapter III: Direct investment by China in Latin America and the Caribbean.” In ForeignDirect Investment in Latin America and the Caribbean. Retrieved November 2013, from http://www.eclac.cl/publicaciones/xml/0/43290/Chapter_III._Direct_investment_by_China_in_Latin_America_and_the_Caribbean.pdf.

Faughnan, Brian M. and Elizabeth J. Zechmeister. 2013. “What do Citizens of the Americas Think of China?” AmericasBarometer: Topical Brief, June 13.

Gallagher, Kevin P., Amos Irwin, and Katherine Koleski. 2012. “The New Banks in Town: Chinese Finance in Latin America.” In 30 Years of Inter-American Dialogue Report: Shaping Policy Debate for Action.

Zechmeister, Elizabeth J., Mitchell A. Seligson, Dinorah Azpuru, and Kang Liu. 2013. “China in Latin America: Public Impressions and Policy Implications.” Presentation of the LAPOP.

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