By Anton Edmunds
While many look at the China-CELAC forum as an event that will strengthen cooperation and deepen ties between China and the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, the results of this meeting may be starkly different than what is being envisioned.
While committing to doubling trade with the region to over $500 billion and providing an economic lifeline to Venezuela and Ecuador in loans are nothing to scoff at, the reality may well be that China is searching for a mechanism under which to coordinate the over 150 bi-lateral agreements that it has signed with countries in the region and advance a China-Regional agenda, versus trying to manage disparate requests for support.
In some respects, China may be pursuing the same path taken by major powers, in assuming that the region can be dealt with as a bloc. As to whether a China-CELAC mechanism can serve to do this while other frameworks have failed is uncertain, especially considering how fragmented the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean are in terms of their economic development levels, and social and political agendas.
That said, supporting an effort to stand up institutions within CELAC is likely to be a cheaper proposition than trying to handle multiple parties increasingly approaching with hat in hand. Interestingly, a China-CELAC arrangement may well add a level of complexity to the already overlapping agendas of the alphabet soup of entities established to advance cooperation within and outside of the hemisphere.
The ability of smaller countries such as those within the Caribbean and Central America to finance active engagement within China-CELAC institutions while managing existing obligations will be interesting.
Fundamentally for Latin America and the Caribbean, gone are the days of China’s largesse through grants and free stadiums. The new China is a slowing economy, whose leaders will be primarily focused on domestic economic growth and employment in 2015 and beyond. While a more mature relationship with the larger regional economies will continue to center around market access for Chinese goods and services, and the sourcing of raw materials for China’s domestic market, there should be concern by smaller economies in the Caribbean and Central America as to their futures.
For many observers, the sense is that the smaller regional economies of the region will be relegated to the sidelines, unless they serve some particularly strategic interest. Logistics hubs and fossil fuel producing countries stand out as those that justify interest. Sadly for smaller economies, the relationships of the future way mirror that which exists with the US, with sporadic initiatives and engagement the best to be expected.
Ultimately, it is a key plank of China’s political agenda, which is to be active within this hemisphere that will guarantee a certain level of presence. While the bulwark against Taiwan’s influence may be no longer needed, Chinese interests align with some regional countries in a common desire to try to keep the US in check.
US active engagement in Asia through the proposing of trade agreements that exclude Beijing and a military presence in support of traditional allies clearly irritates China. As a result, China as an economic power is willing to flex some muscle in the hemisphere while the US struggles with domestic problems, a fractured political system and foreign policy flashpoints in the Middle East.
For some in the region, China’s involvement goes beyond economics and rests in the political realm, as that the country’s firm position on non-interference in internal matters by external parties -- notably the West – is quite appealing.