The only surprise in the growing Chinese presence in Latin America is that it still seems to continue to catch some people (at least Americans) unawares. China is now the largest trade and investment partner for several Latin American countries and the second largest for several more.
There is of course nothing new in Chinese-Latin American commercial relations, nor in the complaints from the American side about the lopsided nature of the trade: for 250 years from 1565, the Manila Galleon took American natural resources (in particular, silver) to Asia to trade for Chinese manufactured goods. But this is now the first time in living memory that the United States has another power operating at other than toe-in-water levels in what America has, since President Monroe, considered its exclusive backyard.
In Dragonomics, University of Southern California professor Carol Wise brings the economic and trade story up to date with a (very) detailed discussion of the last twenty years of Sino-Latin American economic relations. The book is much more about Latin America than it is about China: it is likely to be of more use to the China specialist who wishes to gain a grounding in the Latin American end of the relationship than the other way around.
Regardless of how much knowledge of the region one starts with—and Wise provides the history and statistics to fill in any blanks that one might have—her synthesis and analysis are likely to prove invaluable. It should be said that Wise believes, contrary to pronouncements from the current American administration, that there is benefit to be had in relations with China—that China is not inherently or merely predatory—but whether this benefit accrues depends on conditions and policies.
Wise distinguishes between the relatively smaller, relatively more open economies of Chile, Peru and Costa Rica who have managed, on the whole, to hold their own in trade agreements with China, and Argentina and Brazil who haven’t used the business coming from China to develop their economies (and economic management) as productively as they might have. Wise places Mexico in a class of its own: Mexico, which one might have expected to be the economy best placed for a productive relationship with China has found itself faced with ever-increased trade imbalances and a testy overall relationship. Wise puts much of the blame, if that is the right word, on NAFTA which oriented Mexico, its policies and decision-making in a way that ended up weakening it vis-a-vis an ever more productive China. The other countries don’t get much of a look-in: Cuba was an important early partner in Socialism, but got caught up in the Sino-Soviet split; Venezuela and Ecuador have gotten themselves and China entangled in a mutual debtor/creditor trap. Colombia has put up barriers to protect its domestic industries.
This all comes across as clear and sensible, but there are of course divergent views, some of which Wise mentions. Some of this comes down to development and trade theory: bilateral vs wider trade agreements, the interaction between domestic reform and open economies, the importance of institutions, etc. Other controversies are social (in particular labor rights) and environmental. What Wise does not credit is the idea that China is bamboozling or pressuring Latin American countries into dependency.
Although the book is academic—statistical and analytical—in content and approach, Wise is a forceful writer. She backs her arguments with statistics, logic and references to theory. Some of this can be rather dense, but because Wise is not shy about stating her conclusions clearly and backing them up, she makes a strong case. Dragonomics is an antidote for both those who either discard the significance of the developments of the last two decades, or who think the developments are straightforward and one-dimensional. Latin America is a diverse place, and the results and consequences of China’s entry into the region vary widely from country to country; Wise notes the diversity, but provides structure and identifies patterns.
Wise has little time for Trump administration policy toward the region; she feels the renewed references to the “imperialist Monroe Doctrine” to be entirely beside the point:
As [US Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson ranted about arms trafficking, drug running, and illegal aliens penetrating the US–Mexico border, the China–CELAC ministerial meeting—a follow-up to the first such forum hosted by Beijing in 2015—approved a joint action plan for cooperation from 2019 to 2021…
pretty much sums it up.
Like almost any book being released these days, Dragonomics was written before Covid-19, which threatens to make prior analysis obsolete. But things were already changing. “The big China boom is over,” Wise notes, but she goes on:
And yet two decades into the new millennium the horizon for any number of other enriching ties in China–LAC relations does indeed seem to be wide open… Moreover, the best outcomes have stemmed from China-related endeavors where rule of law, regulatory oversight, and a clear strategy exist on the Latin American side… As a region, LAC has much to gain from its pivot towards Asia.
It the United States continues to prioritize the building of walls rather than bridges, this is likely to remain truer than it might otherwise be.