“The Tropical Silk Road: The Future of China in South America”, edited by Paul Amar, et al.

Ecuadorian and Chinese flags inside the Coca Coda hydroelectric power plant (Wikimedia Commons Ecuadorian and Chinese flags inside the Coca Coda hydroelectric power plant (Wikimedia Commons

A perusal of the bios of the contributors provides the first indication that Tropical Silk Road is not a typical collection of academic papers. In addition to the professors and researchers one might expect, the list also includes Sabrina Felipe, an independent investigative reporter; Paúl Ghaitai Males, “born in the Indigenous community of C­ompañía-Otavalo and is currently an anthropology student at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito”; Rina Pakari Marcillo, “a Kichwa-Otavalo student of cultural anthropology at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito”; Alessandra Korap Silva Munduruku, “one of the most respected Indigenous leaders in Brazil and a law student at the Universidade Federal do Oeste do Pará (Ufopa)”; Jefferson Pullaguari, “vice president of the Indigenous Shuar Federation of Zamora Chinchipe” as well as Zhou Zhiwei, deputy director of the Department of International Relations at the Institute of Latin American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The book’s stated purpose, say the editors in the Introduction, is to capture “the epochal juncture of two of the world’s most transformative processes: China’s ‘Stepping Out’ into the Global South and the disintegration of the Amazonian, Cerrado, and Andean biomes”, the “Cerrado” being the upland savanna and “biome” being a somewhat more tightly-defined term for what might more commonly be called the environment. As becomes clear, “juncture” is not necessarily synonymous with causality.

 

The Tropical Silk Road: The Future of China in South America, Paul Amar ed), Lisa Rofel (ed), Maria Amelia Viteri (ed), Consuelo Fernández-Salvador (ed), Fernando Brancoli (ed) (Stanford University Press, November 2022)
The Tropical Silk Road: The Future of China in South America, Paul Amar (ed), Lisa Rofel (ed), Maria Amelia Viteri (ed), Consuelo Fernández-Salvador (ed), Fernando Brancoli (ed) (Stanford University Press, November 2022)

Tropical Silk Road focuses on just two countries, the regional giant and BRICS member Brazil and relatively small (even by Andean standards) Ecuador:

 

These represent two ends of a spectrum of relations with China. Brazil is an empire in itself… Ecuador is a smaller nation, but strategically positioned at the gateway between the vast Amazonian region, the Andean nations, and the increasingly metropolitan Pacific world … It is a strategic point for expediting Chinese–Latin American trans-­Pacific trade…

 

The editors set the scene:

 

With the US retreating into radical isolationism and atavistic nationalism, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered the collapse of financial markets and exposed the catastrophic incapacity of the anti-developmentalist political coalition. China moved into this gap, propping up state and local government infrastructure and healthcare budgets across the region, and reviving partnerships that had been frozen … Municipal and provincial governments … basked in Chinese attention. The press began describing an “inevitable marriage” between China and South America in an era of declining US hegemony.

 

Because of this focus on the relatively recent past, even casual observers of either South America or China may find little in the book that, in broad strokes, is unexpected. Local resistance to Ecuador’s Mirador mine, problems with the Coca Codo dam and environmental issues arising from China’s seemingly bottomless demand for soy have all been reported, sometimes in depth (the South China Morning Post dedicated a three-part series to the subject in 2019). The strengths of the book are however its multitude of voices—the editors have done a masterful job in integrating the large number of relatively short contributions into a coherent whole—and the resulting nuance and granularity.

 

Tropical Silk Road offers something of respite from discussions which frame China’s international forays as a challenge if not a threat to Western, specially American, interests. The United States is mostly discussed here in passing. And while the projects, mostly large but some small, are for the most part considered problematic, China itself seems to escape much of the direct blame; this is largely laid at the feet of the national authorities and “an unjust socioeconomic structure” with China cast largely as a relatively new representative of “global capital”. Not that it isn’t important to understand China, as several contributors urge; Andrea Piazzaroli Longobardi complains that “for a long time, China and other countries appeared in national literature as chinoiseries.

But there is a certain sense of plus ça change, as the editors point out in a reference to  “nineteenth-century ‘free trade’ advocates”. The issues go beyond China per se: Amazonian deforestation accelerated under the recently-defeated China-bashing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Nor is “extractivism” to support the Chinese economy anything new, of course: it dates back to the 16th-century mining of silver at Potosí.

Although documenting salutary local and, in particular, indigenous mobilization, the overall picture doesn’t look promising, especially for  indigenous groups who seem to suffer most of the costs and receive little, if any, of the benefits. That also is nothing new.

 

Tropical Silk Road gives every indication of having been tightly coordinated, with entries regularly referencing others in the volume. It is perhaps unfair to criticize it for dropping into academic phrasing which may increase the natural tendency for the book’s readership to restrict itself to those already engaged with the subject matter.

This would be regrettable, for discussions about China all too often snap back to a framing of bilateral Sino-American competition. As Tropical Silk Road shows, often quite eloquently, there is much more to the world than that and that sometimes understanding needs to come from the inside out.


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.