By Carlos Martinez

March 20, 2021


In the previous article in this series (in the Morning Star, UK), we unpicked the accusations that China is an emerging imperialist power in Africa.

This article turns its attention to Latin America, with which China has increased its trade and investment by an order of magnitude over the last two decades.

Nine countries in Latin America have “strategic partnerships” with China, and 19 have joined the Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese firms have been investing heavily in infrastructure projects in Latin America, as well as becoming the continent’s largest creditor and lead trading partner.

Max Nathanson observes in Foreign Policy that “Latin American governments have long lamented their countries’ patchy infrastructure” and that China has “stepped in with a solution: roughly $150 billion loaned to Latin American countries since 2005.”

China’s loans to the region surpass those of the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank combined.

Deepening Chinese economic involvement in Latin America inspired then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson — not widely known for his boundless anti-imperialist spirit — to accuse China of being a “new imperial power … using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit.”

Not to be outdone, Dragan Plavsic of Counterfire claims that the result of China’s investments in Latin America “is certain to be a degree of economic dependence on Beijing, and not only for the immediate completion of the infrastructure projects themselves.

“It would be naive to think that other economic pressures will not follow, as well as collateral political and military ones.”

However, China’s role in Latin America is not considered to be “imperialist” by the representatives of the working class and oppressed masses in that continent.

For example, the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez visited China six times over the course of his 13 years as president of Venezuela and was a strong proponent of China-Venezuela relations.

He considered China a key partner in the struggle for a new world, memorably stating: “We’ve been manipulated to believe that the first man on the moon was the most important event of the 20th century.

“But, no, much more important things happened, and one of the greatest events of the 20th century was the Chinese Revolution.”

The Chavez government and its successor have always encouraged Chinese economic engagement with Venezuela, and have never seen it as being in any way coercive.

On the contrary, Chavez considered that an alliance with China constituted a bulwark against imperialism — a “Great Wall against American hegemonism.”

Chinese financing has been crucial for development projects in energy, mining, industry, technology, communications, transport, housing and culture, and has thus played a key role in the improvement in the living conditions of the Venezuelan poor over the last two decades.

Kevin Gallagher writes in his book The China Triangle that Venezuela’s unprecedented anti-poverty programmes were made possible by a combination of “the high price of oil in the 2000s and … the joint fund with China.”

Across the continent, the “China Boom” from 2003-13 “helped erase the increases in inequality in Latin America that accrued during the Washington Consensus period.”

A crucial difference between Chinese and Western investment — between Latin America’s “China Boom” and the Washington Consensus — is that “when Chinese banks do come, they do not impose policy conditionalities of any kind, in keeping with their general foreign policy of non-intervention.”

Rather, Chinese investors treat borrower countries as equals and work to design mutually beneficial deals.

Since Chinese loans don’t come with punishing conditions of austerity and privatisation, Latin American governments have been able to leverage China’s investment and purchase of primary commodities to spend at an unprecedented rate on reducing poverty and inequality.

Chavez spoke plainly about the difference between China and the imperialist powers: “China is large but it’s not an empire. China doesn’t trample on anyone, it hasn’t invaded anyone, it doesn’t go around dropping bombs on anyone.”

This dynamic continues. Comparing the attitude taken towards Venezuela by the US and China, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza stated that “our country is under permanent attack and aggression from the United States of America … Thank God humanity can count on the People’s Republic of China to guarantee peace or at least less conflict.”

Arreaza described the trade and investment deals between China and Venezuela as being set up in a “just, fair and equal manner.”

And, interviewed by Vijay Prashad in November last year, Arreaza stated that China “has been important in guaranteeing Venezuela’s sovereignty as US aggressions have increased over the years.”

Fidel Castro — no slouch in the anti-imperialist department — thoroughly rejected the notion that China was an imperialist power.

“China has objectively become the most promising hope and the best example for all Third World countries … an important element of balance, progress and safeguard of world peace and stability.”

China’s assistance and friendship has proven invaluable to socialist Cuba; China is now the island’s second-largest trading partner and its main source of technical assistance.

China also established strong relations with Bolivia under the progressive government of Evo Morales.

Speaking at a recent event of the No Cold War campaign, Bolivian journalist Ollie Vargas talked about China’s role in launching Bolivia’s first telecoms satellite: “Bolivia is a small country, it doesn’t have the expertise to launch a rocket into space, so it worked with China to launch the satellite which now provides internet and phone signal to all corners of the country, from the Amazon to the Andes, and here in the working-class areas of the big cities.”

Vargas said that the project had been a positive model of mutually beneficial co-operation, as China brought expertise and investment but it didn’t seek to take ownership of the final product; the satellite belongs to the Bolivian people.

As with Africa, accusations of Chinese imperialism in Latin America don’t stand up to scrutiny.

China trades with Latin America; China invests in Latin America; but China is not attempting to dominate Latin America or compromise its sovereignty.