Latin America And China's “New Normal”
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

Latin America And China's “New Normal”

Mar. 01, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s inaugural visit to Latin America in May 2015 highlighted the shift in China’s economic engagement with the region. Premier Li’s tour of Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Chile was significant as these countries accounted for over half of China’s trade with Latin America in 2014. Premier Li’s 2015 Latin American tour followed the two visits to the region made by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and 2014. Premier Li’s visit and President Xi’s earlier visits together set the agenda for deeper industrial cooperation between China and Latin America. This is important as industrial cooperation represents a new engine for growth for both China and Latin America under China’s “new normal” of single-digit economic growth. In particular, China sees economic cooperation in the expansion of industrial capacity as a key mechanism to help the world recover from the global economic crisis (Lim, 2015c; Zhao, 2015c; “China, Latin America,” 2015).

China’s economic engagement with Latin America has become more significant in recent years, with bilateral trade increasing 22 times from 2000 to 2014, transforming China into the region’s second largest trading partner (Bárcena, 2015). China expects its investments in Latin America to rise from 110 billion USD in 2014 to 250 billion USD in the next decade. Chinese investments in the region are in a range of economic sectors, including housing, telecommunications, energy, and transportation infrastructure. China now seeks to move up the value chain in its engagement with Latin America, and hence has begun investing in higher-value projects including e-commerce, high-speed rail, and industrial parks. Such cooperation is expected to expand bilateral trade to 500 billion USD in the next decade, up from 264 billion USD in 2014. Such diversification of trade and investment is needed (Shambaugh, 2013, p. 117; Spinetto & Biller, 2015; “China, Latin America,” 2015; “China eyes,” 2014). 75% of Latin America’s exports to China in 2013 consisted of 5 key commodities, and 90% of China’s investments in the region were in mining and petroleum extraction (Bárcena, 2015). This concentration of investments is an artifact of China’s pattern of investment in Latin America during its “old normal” period of double-digit growth, when Chinese firms focused on Latin America’s extractive industries, especially minerals and energy (Gonzalez-Vicente, 2012, p. 37; Lu, 2012, p. 59). Such concentrated focus on extraction poses the threat of market failure, so China’s shift in the “new normal” towards diversification is healthy for its partner economies in Latin America (“Where Does,” 2006, p. 212).

While some experts see China’s increased economic engagement with Latin America as posing a challenge to US hegemony in its backyard, others argue that the US should welcome such engagement as it will stimulate an economic recovery in this important region of the world economy (Wong, 2015). This stimulus promises to be long-term, with China offering financing and expertise for the construction of infrastructure projects which offer their own multiplier effects on the regional economy (Zhao, 2015d). Apart from infrastructure projects, China will pursue economic cooperation with Latin America though other mechanisms like human resources development and the construction of free trade zones (“China, Latin America,” 2015). Innovation has been identified by the Chinese government as a key economic engine of growth under the “new normal,” and some of the Chinese businesses operating in Latin America have demonstrated innovation in their product development. For instance, the Chinese air-conditioner manufacturer Gree, which has been active in Brazil for the past 15 years, has launched a solar-powered zero-energy-consumption air conditioner in the Brazilian market (Lim, 2015c; “Chinese company,” 2015; “Flourishing Chinese enterprises,” 2015).

In terms of finance, Chinese loans to Latin America reached 22 billion USD in 2014, more than the combined financing from the World Bank and other traditional international financing institutions (Trevisani & Jelmayer, 2015). China has established a 20 billion USD credit line to fund infrastructure construction projects in the region. Likewise, investors interested in agricultural projects can access the China-Latin America Cooperation Fund which offers 50 billion USD in financing (“Premier Li’s LatAm,” 2015). Other key financial instruments include a 200 billion USD loan facility from China Development Bank and a 10 billion USD loan facility from the Export-Import Bank of China to boost trade and investment between China and Latin America (“China, Latin America,” 2015). Premier Li has recently proposed, in his address to the China-Brazil Business Summit, a 30 billion USD industrial fund for Latin American countries to finance the growth of their productive capacity. He also expressed his vision of Latin America’s economy being powered by the development of a logistics corridor built on new and upgraded rail networks, and an energy corridor connected by new high-efficiency electrical grids (Zhang & Zhao, 2015).

President Xi’s 2013 and 2014 visits to Latin America

In his inaugural visit to Latin America in 2013 as Chinese President, Xi Jinping visited Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, and Mexico. In Trinidad and Tobago, President Xi scaled up Chinese development assistance to the country as well as its neighbors, and also expanded China’s economic cooperation with the Caribbean nations (“China pledges,” 2013; “Xi’s visit,” 2013). In Costa Rica, President Xi and Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla agreed to expand the 2011 free trade agreement (FTA) between their countries in the hope of increasing their bilateral trade. China also committed to assisting Costa Rica with the construction of a special economic zone which would increase Chinese investment, and both countries committed to cooperating in a range of economic sectors including tourism and clean energy (“China-Costa Rica FTA,” 2011; “China, Costa Rica agree,” 2013). President Xi’s visit to Mexico saw the upgrading of Sino-Mexican relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership (“China, Mexico upgrade,” 2013). This upgraded bilateral relationship was accompanied with efforts to increase economic cooperation—including investment and trade—in sectors like agriculture, energy, finance, infrastructure, mining, and tourism (“China, Mexico pledge,” 2013; “China, Mexico vow,” 2013). However, China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC)’s experience in Mexico offers a cautionary lesson for Chinese companies seeking participation in expensive megaprojects. CRCC was negatively impacted in 2014 when the Mexican government suddenly cancelled its 3.75 billion USD high-speed rail contract. The Mexican government subsequently announced in May 2015 that CRCC will be compensated 1.3 million USD (“Mexico to compensate,” 2015).

In his 2014 visit to Latin America, President Xi visited Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Cuba. In Brazil he and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff oversaw the signing of agreements marking cooperation in a range of sectors including aerospace, energy, finance, information technology, infrastructure, and science and technology (“China, Brazil sign financial,” 2014; “Rousseff highlights,” 2014; “Brazilian President Rousseff,” 2014; “China, Brazil sign deal,” 2014). One key infrastructure project which President Xi, President Rousseff, and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala agreed to start preparatory work on was a proposed transcontinental railroad linking Brazil’s Atlantic coast with Peru’s Pacific coast (“China, Brazil pledge,” 2014). Premier Li’s recent 2015 visit would see progress in this megaproject. While in Brazil, President Xi also attended the BRICS Summit, through which China’s engagement with Brazil would find another connection through their cooperation on BRICS initiatives like the New Development Bank (“BRICS leaders,” 2014). Brazil’s involvement with the New Development Bank, and more recently the AIIB, will facilitate the internationalization of the renminbi in Latin America (Chang, 2015; Lim, 2015g). More significantly for China’s relations with Latin America, President Xi and the leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) formally launched the China-CELAC Forum, which will provide an important platform for dialogue on economic, political, and foreign policy issues (“China-CELAC Forum,” 2014).

The Chinese air-conditioner manufacturer Gree has launched a solar-powered zero-energy-consumption air conditioner in the Brazilian market.

In Argentina, President Xi and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner upgraded their countries’ bilateral relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. China and Argentina also expanded their economic cooperation to include infrastructure development in sectors like hydropower (“China, Argentina,” 2014; “Interview: China key,” 2014). In Venezuela, President Xi and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro agreed to upgrade Sino-Venezuelan relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. They also agreed to increase cooperation in a range of economic sectors including energy, infrastructure, and mining (“China, Venezuela,” 2014). In Cuba, President Xi met with the Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and also the country’s current President Raúl Castro. Both Presidents Xi and Castro agreed on a range of cooperative ventures to support Cuba’s path of socialist development (“Chinese president,” 2014; “Chinese, Cuban leaders,” 2014). An example of such cooperation can be seen in the modernization by China Communications Construction Company of Santiago de Cuba’s Guillermon Maoncada port (“Cuban port,” 2015). President Xi’s visit to Cuba offered an interesting historical juxtaposition of Cuban socialism with China’s capitalist turn after the Maoist era. China’s Maoist phase had a significant impact on Latin America, of course, as can be seen in the human toll of Maoist insurgencies like Peru’s Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerilla movement (Jilberto & Hogenboom, 2010, p. 6).


While Venezuela was not on Premier Li’s itinerary, his trip to Latin America followed an announcement in April 2015 that China had extended 5 billion USD in loans to Venezuela. China had previously extended almost 50 billion USD in loans to Venezuela, which Venezuela has repaid in oil and gas exports. Venezuela has also announced an investment by the Chinese bus manufacturer Yutong of a bus manufacturing plant in the state of Yaracuy, which will produce 3,500 buses annually both for use in Venezuela’s upgraded national transportation system and for export (Tiezzi, 2015b; “Chinese bus,” 2015).


While China is the largest developing country in the eastern hemisphere, Brazil is the largest developing country in the western hemisphere. Given their importance to the world economy, Premier Li pointed out that Sino-Brazilian economic cooperation will not only accelerate growth among emerging markets, but will also accelerate the world’s economic recovery from the global economic crisis (“Chinese premier urges,” 2015). In 2014, Chinese investments in Brazil stood at 18.9 billion USD. China has become Brazil’s largest trading partner, and Brazil is China’s largest trading partner in Latin America. Between 2001 and 2013, China’s and Brazil’s bilateral trade increased 13 times, and reached 86 billion USD in 2014 (Chang, 2015; Tiezzi, 2015a; “China, Latin America,” 2015).

During his visit to Brazil, Premier Li and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff oversaw the signing of 27 billion USD worth of trade and investment agreements. (President Rousseff estimated the value of the agreements to be 53 billion USD; this figure includes the value of past and the projection of future Chinese investments.) To further expand trade, China and Brazil will work towards easing trade barriers, including facilitating the settlement of trade using local currency. Concerning investment, Brazil hopes to draw on China’s successful experience with industrialization to advance its own industrialization program and reap the economic benefits including job creation. To help Brazil achieve this goal, China will export advanced heavy equipment to Brazil and open manufacturing plants in the country. The industrial sectors to be enhanced through Sino-Brazilian industrial cooperation include aerospace, agriculture, clean energy, metals, oil and gas, petrochemicals, automobile and other heavy manufacturing, shipbuilding, and infrastructure construction. In the aerospace sector, China announced a purchase worth 1 billion USD of passenger jets from the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer. In the infrastructure construction sector, a 50 billion USD fund will be established by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and Caixa Econômica Federal to finance investments in infrastructure projects (Boadle, 2015; Forte, 2015; Zhao, 2015a; “Chinese premier urges,” 2015; “China, Brazil sign 27-bln-USD,” 2015).

Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras, which is emerging from a corruption scandal, received a much-needed financing package from China consisting of a 5 billion USD loan from China Development Bank, and an additional 5 billion USD in loans from ICBC and the Export-Import Bank of China. The terms of the arrangement have not been made public, but an earlier 10 billion USD loan from China to Petrobras in 2009 had Petrobras supplying 150,000 barrels of oil per day to China in the first year and 200,000 barrels per day in the remaining nine years. The new loan package may involve a similar arrangement (Spinetto & Valle, 2015). The Brazilian mining company Vale received 4 billion USD in loans from ICBC as well as a 1.2 billion USD financing arrangement for iron ore shipping from the Export-Import Bank of China, China Ocean Shipping Company, and China Merchants Group (“Brazilian mining,” 2015).

Li pointed out that Sino-Brazilian economic cooperation will accelerate growth among emerging markets and also recovery from the global economic crisis.

Earlier Chinese economic cooperation projects with Brazil had focused on mineral resources and agricultural products. The new focus on industrial cooperation enables China to leverage its manufacturing and technological expertise to help Brazil with its industrial restructuring program. This is an opportunity for Brazil to stimulate regional growth as Chinese investment in Brazilian industry and infrastructure can transform Brazil into a hub for the expansion of trade and industrialization across Latin America. China’s industrial firms, including those involved in construction, heavy machinery, railways, and steel, will benefit from the overseas expansion. For instance, China CNR Corporation, which had supplied the subway trains used during the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, as well as the 15 additional subway trains for the 2016 Rio Olympics, has won a contract to supply over 600 more subway and commuter trains (“China-designed subway,” 2015; “Premier backs,” 2015). In turn, the growth of China’s consumption economy, fueled by the Chinese government’s ambitious urbanization program, will create an important market for Brazil’s export sectors (Chang, 2015).

As with China’s economic cooperation in Africa, Eurasia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, infrastructure construction is a prominent mode of China’s economic engagement with Latin America under the “new normal.” These infrastructure projects range from energy, telecommunications, and ports, to roads and railways (Lim, 2015a; Lim, 2015b; Lim, 2015d; “Infrastructure construction,” 2014). The Brazilian government has welcomed the bids of Chinese companies for rail projects in Brazil, including the ambitious transcontinental railway (“Brazil welcomes,” 2015). This proposed railway, which is also known as the Two Oceans Railway or the Cross-Andes Railway, is the subject of an ongoing feasibility study between China, Brazil and Peru. If built, it will facilitate trade within Latin America as well as between Latin America and China (Wong, 2015; “Brazil welcomes,” 2015; “Chinese premier says,” 2015; “Planes, Trains,” 2015). By providing a new access route to the Pacific Ocean, the transcontinental railway will offer a third gateway between China and Brazil, following the Panama Canal and the maritime route across the Atlantic Ocean around the Cape of Good Hope (“What China gets,” 2015). The proposed oceanic canal in Nicaragua will offer yet another gateway, as will the proposed Aconcagua Bi-Oceanic Corridor between Argentina and Chile which will be discussed later (Trevisani & Jelmayer, 2015). The transcontinental railway will cost an estimated 60 billion USD, and if they agree to construct it, China, Brazil, and Peru will seek financing from a variety of sources including the World Bank and the upcoming BRICS New Development Bank (“What China gets,” 2015).

While Sino-Brazilian cooperation over rail development, including the proposed transcontinental railway, will facilitate the development and integration of South America’s infrastructure network, there are other impacts from the construction of such a megaproject to consider (“Brazil welcomes,” 2015). Environmentalist and other social activist groups are already warning of the potentially negative impacts of the transcontinental railway on the Amazon ecosystem as well as on the traditional lands of the indigenous tribes (Watts, 2015). These are important as similar civil society intervention prompted Myanmar to suspend the similarly controversial Myitsone Dam project (Lim, 2015f).


Premier Li’s visit to Colombia marked the 35th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Colombian diplomatic relations. Premier Li and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed cooperation agreements in a range of economic sectors including agriculture, finance, industrial manufacturing, infrastructure, and science and technology. Agreements in education and culture were also signed. Most significantly, China and Colombia agreed to launch a feasibility study on the creation of a FTA. Even without a FTA, trade between China and Colombia has increased to 15.6 billion USD in 2014, making China Colombia’s second largest trading partner, and Colombia China’s fifth largest trading partner in Latin America (Liu, 2015).

Recognizing Colombia’s and Latin America’s rich literary heritage, Premier Li called for greater cultural linkages between Latin America and China, including cultural and literary exchanges (“Li calls,” 2015). Chinese writers like the Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan, for example, have been greatly influenced by the literary works of Colombian writers like the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Liu, 2015).


In 1971 Peru became the third country in Latin America to establish diplomatic relations with China. China and Peru upgraded their bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership in 2008, and this was further upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2013 (“Premier Li’s visit,” 2015). The 2010 FTA between China and Peru has boosted their bilateral trade, which reached 14.3 billion USD in 2014, making China Peru’s second-largest trading partner. China has also become Peru’s main investor, with Chinese investments in Peru reaching 14.2 billion USD in 2014. In addition, China has become Peru’s largest export market, and the Peruvian government is encouraging its exporters to diversify beyond their traditional exports to nontraditional export commodities like seafood and agricultural produce, with the goal of expanding the value of their nontraditional exports to China from 467 million USD in 2014 to 25 billion USD in 2024 (Zhao & Zhang, 2015; “China, Latin America,” 2015; “Chinese premier says,” 2015).

During Premier Li’s visit, he and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala oversaw the signing of agreements expanding their economic cooperation into new sectors including agriculture, hydropower, mining, petrochemicals, transportation and education (Zhao & Zhang, 2015; “China, Peru,” 2015). Premier Li also called on Chinese businesses in Peru to move up the manufacturing value chain into heavy industries like steel production. Not only would this increase their profitability, it would also support Peru’s efforts at improving and expanding its infrastructure. Peru faces a deficit in infrastructure construction worth almost 80 billion USD—in transportation, energy, electricity supply, healthcare, and telecommunications—and foreign investment, from China and other countries, is needed and welcomed (Zhao, 2015b).


Premier Li’s visit to Chile marked the 45th anniversary of the establishment of Sino-Chilean diplomatic relations, and the 10th anniversary of the signing of their FTA. Chile was the first country in South America to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, and was also the first country in South America to sign a FTA with China. Trade between China and Chile reached 34.1 billion USD in 2014, a fivefold increase from 2005 when their FTA was signed. China is now Chile’s largest trading partner (Zhang, 2015; “Premier Li’s upcoming,” 2015). This increase in trade has impacted various economic sectors including automobile manufacturing, where China-made automobiles have grown to 15% of the Chilean market; and agriculture, where Chilean wine-makers and fruit producers have benefitted from increased exports to China (“New opportunities,” 2015).

Premier Li and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet oversaw the signing of agreements in a range of cooperative ventures including agriculture, finance, mining, and science and technology. The financial cooperation includes a three-year 3.5 billion USD currency swap deal between China and Chile that will boost trade and investment. The new Chilean branch of the China Construction Bank will serve as South America’s first official renminbi clearing bank. In addition, to further increase their bilateral trade, China and Chile have agreed to reduce tariffs to zero for 97% of their trade commodities, and both governments will explore further ways to upgrade their FTA (Qi, 2015; “China, Chile,” 2015).

Chile was the first country in South America to establish diplomatic relations and sign a FTA with China.

China has increased its investment in various sectors of the Chilean economy, including agriculture, clean energy, infrastructure, mining, and telecommunications (“New opportunities,” 2015). Chinese construction companies will also bid for contracts for the construction of Argentina’s and Chile’s ambitious Aconcagua Bi-Oceanic Corridor railway project that will tunnel through the Andes to connect South America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts (Qi, 2015; “Argentina/Chile,” 2012; “Tunneling through,” 2012). Chile, in turn, has become the first country in Latin America, and the thirteenth in the world, to join the Renminbi Qualified Foreign Institutional Investors (RQFII) program. Participation in the RQFII program allows institutional investors from Chile to use their renminbi holdings to purchase up to 50 billion renminbi worth of stocks and bonds in the Chinese securities market (Li, 2015).

In the field of cultural exchange, groups of Chinese artists will visit Chile this year to commemorate Chile’s Year of Chinese Culture (“Premier Li’s upcoming,” 2015). In turn, Beijing and Shanghai will celebrate a “week of Chile” which will mark the 45th anniversary of Sino-Chilean diplomatic relations (“Chinese premier’s visit,” 2015). Such cultural exchanges will continue next year which has been designated the China-Latin America and the Caribbean Cultural Exchange Year. Such cultural exchange is also present in the education sector, with over 100 volunteer instructors from China teaching the Chinese language to 5,000 Chilean students, and with Chile serving as the regional center for Latin America’s growing network of 35 Confucius Institutes. The Chinese government has increased its scholarships for Chilean students to pursue their further studies in China, and is also encouraging cooperation between Chinese and Chilean universities (“New opportunities,” 2015; “Premier Li’s LatAm,” 2015). This is part of a program announced by President Xi during his 2014 tour of Latin America to grant scholarships to 6,000 students from Latin America (“Pacific won’t block,” 2014).

Latin America and the “Belt and Road”

Given the deepening of China’s economic engagement with Latin America, one important open question is whether Latin America will eventually come under China’s “Belt and Road” development framework. Even though Admiral Zheng He’s 15th century voyages did not extend to the New World, China does share a historical connection with the region dating from the 17th century Manila Galleon trade that connected China with the New World via the Philippines. This was followed in the 19th century by the arrival of Chinese migrants to the New World to serve as coolie labor on plantations, mines, and railways. Hence there is historical precedent for an expansion of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to Latin America (Jiang, 2003, p. 315; “East Asia,” 2003, p. 5; “Premier Li’s visit,” 2015). The case of the South Pacific offers a more recent precedent. Even though Admiral Zheng He’s voyages did not extend to the South Pacific, this region was recently added to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (“Silk Road,” 2015). This decision came five months after President Xi’s visit to the region, which witnessed the upgrading of Sino-Australian and Sino-New Zealander relationships to comprehensive strategic partnerships, as well as the completion of China’s FTA negotiations with Australia (“China, New Zealand,” 2014; “Sino-Oz,” 2014).


This paper was originally published in Eurasia Review (Lim, 2015e). Since that time of writing, the fourth CELAC Summit has been held in Ecuador, with a focus on economic issues, especially the dire impacts of China’s economic slowdown and the global collapse in oil prices. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, these global economic challenges led to a 14% decline in Latin American exports in 2015, and the region is expected to enjoy almost non-existent 0.6% growth in 2016. To help its Latin American partners successfully weather these economic challenges, China has offered 35 billion USD in financing arrangements, and encouraged greater investment and economic engagement from its business community in the Latin American market. China has also facilitated human resource development in Latin America though the provision of a range of training programs, especially in the fields of science and technology. The recent Zika viral epidemic, which has badly impacted the region, was another pressing issue during the CELAC Summit, and China has offered its help to combat the disease (Bongat, 2016; Ybanez, 2016; Zhu, 2016; “Latin America,” 2016).


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