China-Latin America: Literature Shows Varying Perspectives on Beijing’s Intentions

By Andrés Serbin*

Communicating Influence: China’s Messaging in Latin America and the Caribbean project page logo

By frequently casting China-Latin America relations as a “triangular relationship” between China, the United States, and Latin America, much of the academic literature generates a series of misunderstandings. Studies in both the English-speaking community and in China generally portray Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) as a relatively homogeneous and unified area – ignoring regional fragmentation and diversity – in a triangular relationship with the two superpowers. But Latin American analysts are increasingly focused on the widely varying nature of countries’ bilateral and subregional ties with each.

  • Latin American analysts generally produce theoretically more complex, politically diverse, and ultimately contradictory approaches to the relationships. Whereas the theoretical disciplines of international relations (IR) and international political economy (IPE) are ubiquitous in the English-speaking community, recent debates and critiques in Latin America reveal accelerated development of their own theoretical and conceptual approaches.

The two sets of analyses overlap in several important areas, such as China’s primary interest in securing resources and in investing its booming wealth in the region, but they yield different interpretations of its strategic objectives. Most views center around China promoting a version of globalization based on its geostrategic objectives, generating an increasingly tense dispute between the United States, as the traditional hegemonic power, and the rising PRC. This competition occurs mainly in the commercial and technological arenas, but it has military and cultural elements as well.

  • The Western epistemic community, to some extent reflecting the demands and expectations of the political milieu in which they work, frequently regards the Chinese presence in Latin America as a threat to U.S. interests and the autonomy of LAC countries. In this dynamic, China’s objectives go beyond economics and into spaces from which the United States has withdrawn. Latin America, despite its peripheral situation, is immersed in and eventually subordinated to a broader and more global geostrategic dispute, even if (as most analysts believe) China is not trying to impose its political system and development model on the region. 
  • Others tend to view China’s modernization and transformation, its remarkable need for commodities, and its ability to finance large acquisitions and projects as having important bilateral effects for the region. China has incorporated countries into its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) infrastructure megaproject. Recently, it has undertaken an aggressive “health diplomacy” project during the COVID‑19 pandemic. 

The Latin American perspective is independent of efforts by LAC-based and Chinese analysts to foster joint research and interaction in the past 25 years; Chinese input into LAC analysis is growing but still limited. 

  • The most prolific LAC authors maintain fluid links with U.S. and European academic counterparts, but their work draws on theoretical frameworks that are rooted in approaches developed in the region. This includes a wealth of economic analysis and statistical data developed by individual scholars, research centers, and networks (such as Red‑ALC China), and institutions such as the UN-sponsored Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). Many aspects of China’s policies, such as their impact on labor, environment, regional industrialization, and increasing LAC indebtedness to China (the “debt trap”) have been criticized, but its “soft power” has expanded significantly and benefited many in LAC.

This significant body of research and publications about China’s activities in LAC reflects three predominant disciplinary and theoretical approaches in addition to analysts’ own perceptions of their national interests.

  • The focus of international relations neorealism on China’s potentially destabilizing effects in the region and its relations with the United States gives short shrift to other important actors in the region and world. It also stimulates an inaccurate vision of Latin America as a monolithic, unitary actor and deep down expresses a subtle neocolonialism and “neocolonialist paradigm.” 
  • The emphasis of the international political economy approach is on China’s intentions as predominantly linked to its development – and not as a threat to the United States. Most argue that Latin America must develop its relationship with China and maintain its links with the United States simultaneously, without getting involved in a confrontation between them. 
  • But LAC is showing a third, hybrid approach mixing IPE and geopolitical analysis to contextualize China’s influence. It has shown that some “benign” impacts have also generated new dependency and center-periphery relations that can be characterized as a “dependency with Chinese characteristics.”

The debate between these differing interpretations –viewing dynamics as either bilateral or triangular – will continue to mold U.S., Chinese, and LAC countries’ policies as China pursues its global projection strategy.

January 21, 2022

* Andrés Serbin is an international analyst and president of the Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Research (CRIES), a network of more than 70 research centers, think tanks, NGOs, and other organizations focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. This article is adapted from his recent CLALS Working Paper, Latin America-China Relations: A Review of Recent Literature (2010-2020)

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