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Xi in LatAm: China Expands Footprints in the Region; By Shastri Ramachandaran

 C3S Paper No. 0145/2016

Courtesy: China.org.cn

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ongoing visit to Latin America – from November 17 to 23 – comes at an opportune juncture, with the U.S. and other powers caught in domestic situations and global uncertainties that preclude their proactive engagement abroad. And President Xi, who is on course for state visits to Ecuador, Peru and Chile, can be expected to make the most of extending China’s influence in a region seen as the U.S.’s backyard.

Xi’s visit may have far-reaching consequences for the U.S. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), being all but buried, may be one of many casualties to follow in the aftermath of Donald Trump being elected president.

The post-election transition in the U.S. means that its presence will hardly be felt in the Lima APEC session, where all eyes will be on Xi. As a lame duck, President Barack Obama’s attendance will actually underscore the declining influence of the U.S. on APEC. Obama’s delegation can hardly contribute to chalking out any future plans, and in the absence of the officials from the incoming U.S. President’s team, the U.S. delegation will be conspicuously ineffective.

The other big power, Russia, though firmly with China and against the U.S. in the Pacific and the Middle East, is preoccupied with a reset of its relations with Washington in the aftermath of a Trump victory. President Vladimir Putin’s current priority is to win over the U.S. President-elect for his goals in the Middle East where Russia’s military engagement could be decisive. Thus, APEC and Latin America are not priorities for Moscow at this time.

China has the field clear to boost its economic and trade relations with Latin America. However, in the current circumstances, President Xi, despite being all too aware of China’s advantageous situation, is unlikely to project political power or touch upon strategic objectives. In fact, he may shy away from it to emphasize that instead of political and ideological influence, what China is seeking is a deeper and stronger economic partnership that would be mutually beneficial.

Therefore, the economic objectives of Xi’s mission are no less important. In the 10 years up to 2015, the volume of China-Latin America trade rose twenty-fold to $263.6 billion. China is the second largest trade partner and third largest investment source of Latin America.

The potential for win-win cooperation is immense. Latin America has been identified as one of the three main areas that could be a net energy supplier to China. The region has huge natural resources including minerals that China is interested in. In return, China can help with infrastructure development on a massive scale and supply manufactured goods at very low prices. The slowdown in China and the consequent surplus of material such as iron, cement, etc. would actually help export of projects, especially infrastructure building.

Economic and commercial ties apart, China is engaged with Latin America in multilateral forums such as China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Forum, Organization of American States (OAS), G5 group (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa), BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China).

Clearly, Latin America figures high on China’s foreign policy agenda. This is Xi’s third visit to Latin America as president since 2013. Although his visit to Ecuador is the first by a Chinese leader since 1980, Latin America has seen more than 30 visits in the last 15 years by Chinese presidents and premiers.

China’s increasing engagements are changing the region’s geopolitics in a way that may challenge the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, in which U.S. President James Monroe asserted U.S. supremacy over its southern region and required other powers to keep out. Mikhail Gorbachev did visit Latin America, but that did not ruffle any feathers in Washington as the Soviet Union was falling apart and Russia alone was no match for U.S. power.

Unlike in those times, China’s presence has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. An, a U.S. in retreat signifies the collapse of the TPP and other mechanisms and schemes conceived with a view to extending American power in the Pacific to contain China. Right now, China is in a position to make the most of opportunities in Latin America and Xi may capitalize on that.

(Shastri Ramachandaran is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/ShastriRamachandaran.htm.)

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