Towards an Understanding of a Global China: A Latin American Perspective

Written by Ariel C. Armony.

When we talk about China and its relationship with Latin America, we do so almost exclusively in economic terms. However, we also need to understand the political dimension of this relationship. One must be careful – this is not about ideologies of the left or right. Rather, it is about understanding a much more complicated phenomenon.

China is creating a project with an extraordinary reach: justifying itself as a global power. What is at stake here is China’s purpose and vision as a world leader.

Following an analysis solely focused on trade or investment is myopic. The majority of what has been written about President Xi Jinping’s July 2014 visit to Latin America commit this error. The purpose of his visit goes much farther than the torrent of credits, agreements, and projects.

Various experts contend that China’s strategy of global influence is a pragmatic one, focused primarily on maintaining economic growth. In the case of Latin America, Beijing’s principal objective would be to ensure the stability of inputs to feed said growth. This analysis is correct, but only partially: China’s pragmatism also requires a political vision to give it sustenance.

Power, as we know, is not determined solely by economic or military resources. China has made some notable advances in these fields. Now, China must create a narrative of legitimacy that generates influence as well as respect. It should be a persuasive narrative, promoting the idea of a universal good, while taking care to not invoke a “civilizing mission” that could be characterized as a neo-colonialist project.

China has developed a rhetoric that connects with the interests and aspirations of other developing countries, without challenging the existing global paradigm, which is centered in the United States. Up to now, the rhetoric and its real-world applications (investment in infrastructure, all kinds of credit, and others) have followed a scheme of promoting “win-win” development, according to Beijing.

The Chinese Communist Party has made it very clear that, to reach its global aspirations, China should become something more than just a model of economic development. It is not enough to generate admiration: it is necessary to create empathy, a sense of a common destiny.

Based on the idea of democracy and liberty as a universal good, the United States has taken on the role of a dominant force for global humanitarianism, presenting itself as a tool for morality, although its actions obviously contain economic and political objectives.

Clearly, the values affirmed by a U.S. version of freedom and democracy are not useful for China. But instead of continuing to attack them, Beijing is designing a very clever strategy. And in this strategy, Latin America plays an important role.

China proposes to create a more just, reasonable, and equitable international order, one that is guided by the new actors in the world economy. This is good, but: what exactly is meant by a more just, reasonable, and equitable order? It is not easy to unpack the details of this order from China’s global policies. For the time being, Beijing subscribes to the necessity of reorganizing international institutions, without toppling the existing edifice. The BRICS New Development Bank and Contingent Reserve Agreement are concrete examples of “important steps for the remodeling of the global financial architecture,” using the words of Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff.

This is not a stand-alone plan. The other side of the coin is fundamental, because it is the cement in which these bricks can be laid. China proposes that the developing world returns to its true values. This notion is constructed out of two concepts that are articulated in Beijing’s overall message. First is the idea of civilization. Second is the idea of apology.

By privileging the notion of civilization, the communist leadership is putting emphasis on three concepts: diversity, equality, and inclusion. The diversity of civilizations guarantees their equality and their right to a just inclusion in the international order. According to the Chinese perspective, differences between civilizations are not necessarily sources of conflict. For Beijing, affirming that global politics are dominated by a clash of civilizations is a way of justifying a North American strategy that promotes Westernization and containment of the Confucian and Islamic States.

China advances the notion of a world thought of as a positive sum of civilizations. This message was made very clear when President Xi visited the Mayan pyramids of Chichén Itzá during his trip to Mexico in 2013. As Xi Jinping pointed out, “China and Mexico are ancient civilizations and great cultural powers.” It is impossible to say both about the United States. And even if it could be said, from where would this statement be spoken? From the decade-old Googleplex in Mountain View, California?

Talking about civilizations is not merely a rhetorical exercise. It is a way to change perspective, outlining a temporal framework very different from that of the nation-state or political regime. What are two hundred years of independence compared to six millennia? Or four decades of democracy, in this last “wave” of democratization born in the seventies? This is important, because it raises a question of fundamental importance for Latin America: what are our true values?

This question goes right to the heart of our notions of democracy and human rights. China suggests to us: are these the values that define Latin American identity? It would be very simple to flatly reject this question, but it is framed in a narrative that touches some very sensitive fibers. China tells us Latin Americans that we all share something very important: we have been the victims of foreign powers. They have colonized us, humiliated us, and imposed foreign values on us.

The new Chinese narrative suggests: are democracy and human rights not forms of submission, values that we were forced to take as our own? Are we maybe forgetting that we are the manifestations of great civilizations? Is it not time to return to our own values, which we can only discover by looking deeply at ourselves?

For China, it is time for an apology.

These can be dangerous questions. But ignoring them can be even more dangerous. For better or worse, the growing influence of China in Latin America and the United States’ aimlessness in the region, work together to amplify the relevance and resonance of these issues.

It is naive to think that China represents a threat to democracy in Latin America, simply because the Chinese economic model can be an object of admiration in various countries of the region. This does not negate the fact that the narrative developed by China has certain attractive elements for Latin America, especially at the international level. However, at the same time, it does contain ideas that could potentially erode the institutional bases of these countries.

In contrast with the United States, China does not yet have a narrative that can be equivalent to the North American model of “enlightened self-interest.” As Adam Smith wrote, it is not the benevolence of the butcher that gives us dinner, rather his own personal interest. Nonetheless, thanks to him, we can eat. It is self-love that gives roots to the idea that a nation is destined, by divine resolve, to promote democracy and liberty as a universal good.

By assigning itself the moral authority to protect democracy and liberty around the world, the United States has shaped a narrative that justifies any type of action in support of these values. The Chinese leadership knows this, as it has learned a lot from Washington.

We still have yet to see if the Chinese project in Latin America will be able to cement values that would differentiate it from the United States. In contrast with Washington’s characteristic dichotomy (ally or enemy), China appears to endorse moderation and, hence, a relational model characterized by chiaroscuros. At the same time, China would be able to advance a complementary agenda focused on the expansion of values that both sides have in common. But, clearly, this would also mean that the relationship not be entirely defined by Beijing. Is there a Latin American vision about the relationship that is being constructed with China? If there is one key question for the region, it is this.

China does business in Latin America. But behind this business there comes policy, which manifests an overall grand strategy. It is our responsibility to get to the bottom of this agenda, and then to become protagonists in its construction.

Ariel C. Armony is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami. Ariel tweets @arielarmony. Image Credit: CC by Ministério das Relações Exteriores/Flickr.

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