“Latin America and the Asian Giants: Evolving Ties with China and India”, edited by Riordan Roett and Guadalupe Paz

Latin America

The changing balance between Asia and the West is a function not just of the relative rise of the Asian economies but also of the apparent withdrawal of the United States from a multi-decade commitment to global leadership, a development which if anything seems to be accelerating under the only recently-installed Trump administration. One place where these two factors coincide dramatically is Latin America, a region that the United States has long considered—somewhat patronizingly, perhaps—as its backyard.

Latin America and the Asian Giants: Evolving Ties with China and India, Riordan Roett, Guadalupe Paz (eds) (Brookings Institution Press, September 2016)
Latin America and the Asian Giants: Evolving Ties with China and India, Riordan Roett, Guadalupe Paz (eds) (Brookings Institution Press, September 2016)

Although China’s increasing interest and presence in Latin America has been discussed before, Latin America and the Asian Giants, a new book from the Brookings Institution Press, uniquely compares China and India. This volume is a collection of academic papers—somewhat dry as such papers are wont to be—but one which gives every indication of firm oversight and direction from editors Riordan Roett and Guadalupe Paz, both with the Latin American Studies Program at the John Hopkins Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. The result is a complete, coherent introduction and overview which includes considerable well-documented detail.

 

The main takeaways are pretty much what one might have expected. From an almost negligible presence a generation ago, China is now a major player in Latin America, to the extent that

 

… we can refer to the first decade of the twenty-first century as “Latin America’s China decade”.

 

China’s appetite for raw materials and natural resources, everything from oil to soybeans, powered unparalleled growth in both GDP and trade. This has tapered off in recent years as China’s economy has itself cooled, but China remains the largest or second-largest trading partner for several countries. Chinese lending to Latin America can exceed that of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the US Export-Import bank combined.

Latin America has however in general had trouble moving up the value chain, while Chinese exports undercut local manufacturing much as they have elsewhere.

India is still a much smaller player, but there is hope that it will be the “next big thing” and help the region diversity away from China and provide some balance. A non-academic observer might detect a certain wistfulness in this hope; there is a long way to go yet.

The book also emphasizes that the region is not monolithic and that the relationship with China and India varies greatly country-to-country. Mexico’s economy is, due to NAFTA, tightly integrated with those of North America while China has more US$50 billion of loan exposure to Venezuela alone. India and Indians, on the other hand, have a particularly strong connection in the Caribbean extension to the region.

 

A particularly interesting chapter is the one by Jacqueline Mazza on migration. There have been Asian populations, some quite substantial, in Latin America since the 17th century. There was a wave of Chinese labour migration starting in the latter half of the 19th century; Indians tended to go to the Caribbean. Immigration continues today, notably in the form of Chinese workers for Chinese projects, but the numbers are unreliable.

The book includes three case studies: the one on Chile by Alicia Frohmann and Manfred Wilhemy on Chile is, intentionally or otherwise, rather wry. Chile fancies itself as a “bridge country”:

 

The proposal to convert Chile into a bridge between Asia Pacific countries and South America is based on the premise that Chile has significant advantages over its neighbors… as well as more robust political and economic relations with Asian countries. This view is not shared by those in neighboring countries …

 

So much for that, then.

Carefully documented, Latin America and the Asian Giants leaves little to quibble about. Only very occasionally is an evidentially dubious statement like “Millennia-old cultural barriers are sometimes an issue for Western exporters [to China]” allowed to creep in.

 

Latin America and the Asian Giants has, since its publication some six weeks before the US election, been somewhat overtaken by events. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is given considerable play, whereas by the time of the last APEC meeting in Lima, TPP was dead on arrival, and alternatives were being seriously discussed. As the US, under the new administration, seems intent on withdrawing behind a wall, China has given every indication of taking advantage of any resulting vacuum.

This is the first time in at least a century and a half that a country other than the United States has played anything but a highly subordinate role in Latin America. The book’s content and analysis seem even more significant and relevant today than they must have when the papers were being compiled. In this light, paragraphs such as that which starts

 

While the PLA has yet to establish exclusive military alliances or basing agreements with countries in the hemisphere…

 

begin to sound a bit less hypothetical.


Peter Gordon is the editor of The Asian Review of Books and co-author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815.