President Xi Jinping is having state visits to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico from 31 May to 6 June and a stopover in the US. This will be Xi’s first visit to Latin America as President of China and the second time for top Chinese leaders to set feet on Latin America following Vice President Li Yuanchao’s trip to Argentina and Venezuela early May. Such frequent high-level visits highlight the increasing significance of Latin America and the Caribbean in the diplomatic blueprint of the new Chinese administration and will again fuel comprehensive cooperation between China and that region.
At present, the severe impact of the international financial crisis on North America and Europe is still felt and the shadow remains with much uncertainty and destabilizing factors in global economic recovery. Emerging economies have become priority new targets for China to develop economic cooperation and trade. President Xi’s first visit in March took him to Russia, Africa and the BRICS Summit. This time it’s Latin America, an indication of much elevated status of developing countries in the overall diplomacy of China.
In the past few years, China-Latin America relations have registered much faster growth, with frequent exchanges of high-level visit, higher positions of the other side in each other’s strategy, extended Chinese strategic partnership with Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Venezuela and Mexico and adoption by multiple Latin American countries of a China strategy or Asia Pacific strategy in which China is the focus of attention. Furthermore, the Chinese and Latin American economies are high complementary. China is now the second largest trading partner of and a leading source of investment in Latin America. It is the largest trading partner of Brazil and Chile. Even amidst European debt crisis and global economic downturn, trade between China and Latin America has grown fairly rapidly. In 2012, bilateral trade reached 261.2 billion US dollars, an 8.1% increase year-on-year. China has signed free trade agreements with Chile, Peru and Costa Rica. Bilateral economic exchanges are moving from trade-dominated to greater balance between trade and investment. Cooperation has also expanded into the fields of agriculture, science and technology, aerospace and humanities. Cooperation mechanism has been improved innovatively by ways of earmarked funds and forums. In global affairs, the two sides have made use of APEC meetings, BRICS summits, G20 summits and UN Conference on Sustainable Development to exchange views and coordinate positions. It is particularly eye-catching that since the new Chinese leadership took office high-level exchanges with Latin America have been even more frequent. In April, Xi met Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala Tasso at the Boao Forum for Asia. In May, President Jose Mujica of Uruguay had a successful visit to China. Built on a decade of rapid expansion of China-Latin America relations, President Xi’s visit will certainly create a new momentum for bilateral cooperation.
The trip to Latin America is also out of the need for overall diplomatic balance. After Xi’s visit to Russia and Africa, Premier Li Keqiang went to India, Pakistan and Europe. With these visits, Chinese leaders attended simultaneously to both relations with neighbors, big countries and developing countries and influence in multilateral organizations. Latin America is among the fastest growing emerging regions of huge potentials, with Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico holding important positions in the Caribbean, Central America and Latin America respectively. Xi’s visit will be the first by Chinese President to Trinidad and Tobago and English-speaking Caribbean countries and the second by Chinese President to Costa Rica, demonstrating the attention paid by new Chinese leaders to the Caribbean and Central America. Plus Vice President Li Yuanchao’s recent visit and then Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit last year, China is reaching out to Latin America comprehensively.
Xi’s visit will not only help strengthen bilateral economic cooperation and strategic mutual trust but also facilitate people-to-people and humanities exchanges, adding more tiers to China-Latin America relations. The two sides will deepen cooperation in finance, energy and resources, infrastructure, high-tech and agriculture. The peoples will also understand each other better and make concerted efforts to overcome or mitigate existing difficulties such as trade imbalance between China and Mexico, thereby achieving win-win and common development.
Besides, on his way back from Latin America, Xi will meet President Obama in California. With increased turbulence in the world and huge uncertainty over regional hotspots, it is completely necessary for top Chinese and American leaders to communicate with each other at appropriate times. There is reason to believe that China and the US can cooperate in regions where their interests seem to conflict. For example, the US was quite disturbed by increased Chinese presence in Latin America in the past decade and even mapped countermeasures. However, experience suggests that China-Latin America political, economic, trade and humanities cooperation has not obstructed the presence of any third-party power in Latin America. On the contrary, it has contributed to regional economic prosperity and social stability and benefited US companies. In this connection, China and the US should actually experiment on trilateral cooperation with Latin America and take it as a new way of developing a new type of big power relations between them.
Chen Xiaoyang, Institute of Latin American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations