Chinese President Xi Jinping Tours The Americas: Why does it matter?
June 10, 2013
This weekend, new Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded the last leg of his tour of the Americas with a two-day meeting with President Obama in California. Though we don't know how much Latin America was raised in their discussions, both leaders' recent trips to the region are proof of how heavily it weighs on their minds.
The previous stops on Xi's trip, Trinidad & Tobago, Costa Rica, and Mexico, each represent a distinct part of China's new and still-developing foreign policy towards the Western Hemisphere. The visit itself was, in many ways, historic. President Xi's stop in the Caribbean included meetings with several Caribbean leaders, and it was the first visit of a Chinese head-of-state to the English-speaking Caribbean. Xi's stop in Mexico focused on his goal of improving the two states' historically strained relations. And all three stops closely mirrored President Obama's and Vice President Joe Biden's recent trips to the region.
So what does President Xi's visit mean for the region?
Q1: What is the purpose of President Xi's trip to Latin America? What does the trip reveal about Chinese priorities in the region?
A1: President Xi's visit to countries in Latin America can be seen as an effort to communicate his new goals in the region.
Under Xi, China will pursue its commercial interests, which are not dissimilar from those of the United States. These priorities are reflected in the countries President Xi included in his trip.
Much of President Xi's visit with President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico revolved around bolstering the states' commercial ties. Though trade relations between the two countries have been difficult in recent years, owing to Mexico's large bilateral trade deficit and China's increasing importance to the U.S. economy, the leaders signed a number of agreements that solidify China's place as one of Mexico's top trading partners.
The Chinese president's stops in Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago mirrored Obama's and Biden's trips, respectively. In Costa Rica, Xi initiated large-scale infrastructure investments—a cornerstone of China's activities in the region. And in Trinidad & Tobago, Xi, like Biden, sought to strategically position his own country's access to the Caribbean nation's abundance of oil and natural gas resources.
All in all, President Xi's trip revealed China's desire to broaden and deepen its economic ties with Latin American countries, a goal it has thus far worked to achieve through investments, joint-infrastructure projects, and trade agreements.
Q2: What is the significance of President Xi's visit's so closely tailing those of President Obama and Vice President Biden?
A2: Obama's trip in April took him to Mexico and Costa Rica, while Biden's visit last month brought him to Trinidad & Tobago, Brazil, and Colombia. It hardly can be seen as a coincidence that President Xi visited three of these same countries.
In an op-ed in the Miami Herald, Andres Oppenheimer labeled the Chinese visit a “tit-for-tat message to Obama,” with the Asian giant avoiding its usual allies in the region, such as Cuba and Venezuela, seen as a signal of the country's challenge to states with exports historically oriented to the United States.
In contrast, in his talk at CSIS last week, Dr. Evan Ellis, National Defense University scholar on Asia-Latin America relations and senior associate of the Americas program, emphasized that whatever the leader's intentions, President Xi's visit and broader Chinese strategy in the region are of little concern for U.S. policy. As he pointed out, Xi's trip was planned early in his presidency—before the U.S. visits were announced.
To be sure, whatever the weight of President Xi's trip, China's growing presence in Latin America adds a new dynamic for the United States in the region: real competition. Just as Biden's visit clearly signaled U.S. intentions to reengage with the region, so too does Xi's tour. Evidently, China hopes to avoid falling far behind.
Q3: Are U.S. and Chinese interests in Latin America parallel? Can both interests be pursued without friction?
A3: Though the U.S. and Chinese governments are both seeking to forge deeper economic ties with Latin America, each has distinct political motives as well.
For its part, the Obama administration's engagement largely focuses on improving Latin Americans' perceptions of the United States. The administration has shifted away from the historically paternalistic U.S. attitude toward Latin America in favor of one based on equal partnerships.
To date, Chinese interest in Latin America has been primarily economic, focusing on infrastructure projects, gaining access to the region's abundant natural resources and expanding its economic support to the region. But recent developments reveal that China's intentions are beyond the purely commercial, extending toward efforts to balance against U.S. involvement in Asia.
U.S. leadership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Obama's "pivot to Asia" have likely been influential in increasing Chinese interest in Latin America—including the recent announcement that a Chinese company will work with the Nicaraguan government to build a trans-oceanic canal to compete with the Panama Canal.
While U.S. and Chinese interests are not necessarily in opposition, the United States must continue to prioritize its relationships with Latin American countries if it is to remain the more attractive alternative to Chinese investment in the region.
Conclusion: Chinese overtures to Latin America are not to be ignored nor rejected. It may be worthwhile to balance against China's involvement by adding Colombia to the TPP, for instance, or for the United States to accept the Pacific Alliance's invitation for membership, or maybe including Mexico in the U.S. -EU free trade agreement negotiations.
But rather than turning this into an all-out mercantilist fight for the region with winners and losers, maybe in addition to pursuing regional initiatives, such as those mentioned above, forging a path based on cooperation and inclusion between the United States and China, one which could include efforts to bring China into the TPP, for instance, could provide an effective way of enhancing commercial opportunity for the United States, involved Latin American countries, and China.
Carl Meacham is the director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Paola Daza, Michelle Sinclair, and Tania Miranda, intern scholars with the Americas Program at CSIS, provided research assistance.
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