China’s Favourites and What’s to Come

By Christian Scheinpflug

This post appeared elsewhere in a slightly different version on November 22, 2016.

On November 19 and 20 the 24th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit took place in Lima, Peru. The event was presented in some Chinese media as mainly revolving around President Xi Jinping. Although such spectacle around a leader may seem outlandish for some audiences, it’s a fitting frame for viewers in industrialising countries, especially China, whose rising power status forms intrinsic part of national identity.

Notably, Mr. Xi detoured to Chile and Ecuador and met with Peru’s Pedro Pablo Kuczynski outside the APEC frame. This agenda elicits curiosity because president’s travel plans also constitute part of diplomacy, and in this subtle art what’s done matters as much as what isn’t. Officially, Mr Xi’s side trips had purely economic reasons, namely signing bilateral trade deals. Yet, the deals in question aren’t groundbreaking and could have been signed less publicly. Moreover, a visit to the supposedly key ally and oil supplier Venezuela was not part of the programme. Hence, these trips served another purpose.

Sino-European diplomacy hints at an explanation. China barely conceals its disregard for Brussels, while Germany as the dominant economy and most influential EU member enjoys Beijing’s respect practically alone among European states. Beijing’s courting surely is meant to ease mutual investment, but also to provide a springboard into Brussels if necessary. The price of that strategy is critical commentary on China’s human rights situation in Germany’s mainstream media.

Within the Latin frame, thus, Mr. Xi’s trips introduce Chile, Ecuador, and Peru as China’s preferred regional partners. This holds tremendous opportunity for all three, but will also require adjustments, especially for Chile which pursues economic opportunism in the international arena more than actual foreign policy.

Increasing Sino-Chilean commerce benefits both and will likely constitute a pillar of growing Chilean wealth. But sooner or later it may also cause Chileans asking if and how their wealth is related to events in, say, Tibet. Moreover, Chile’s democratic tradition will allow a growing Chinese diaspora that may house dissidents to raise its voice. Such scenarios arise regularly in countries like Australia or Germany and cause diplomatic tension.

So far, China has reacted rather abrasive when confronted with human rights issues. These reactions stem partially from leaders’ ability to dissect Western hypocrisy from the human rights discourse, and identify these rights as tool to pressure Beijing. And sure, especially Latin America has first-hand experience of the practical consequences of that hypocrisy. Still, Beijing also consistently fails to appreciate how little control most democratic governments actually exert over the media or rights groups.

Human rights nonetheless should not fall under the table of Sino-Latin relations. For sociological and historical reasons they constitute pillars of Latin societies’ stability, and China can’t have an interest in undermining such stability. For example, politics in Chile still revolves around the legacy of Augusto Pinochet. Right-wing parties and the international business press legitimise his rule by emphasising his economic reforms. But Hitler could be defended the same way because the Nazis actually ran a tight economy, too. Naturally, such whitewashing provokes social forces that oppose justifying torture as necessity for economic progress. But as a crime wave, exacerbated by media hyperbole, is hitting the country, Chile’s intrinsic conservatism sways public opinion toward repressive policies, rather than politics, to resolve the problem. This conservatism and the class structure create a friction in which the lines between decent folk and human rights abusers blur. It is the reason why the United States could easily exploit and deepen the cracks of class war and ravage the continent.

This friction may cause trouble for China if it is perceived to stand too close with human rights abusers. Chinese insistence on sovereignty no matter what doesn’t help because this approach not only prevents others from looking into China, but also keeps China from engaging appropriately with partners’ societies.

Low reputation for China, in turn, would play out better for the US, similarly as China and Russia also benefit from anti-US sentiment today, but the Trump presidency provides a unique opportunity to not repeat Washington’s mistakes. For Chile, in turn, no matter how forthcoming China, or how welcoming Chile acts toward Beijing, the Chinese proverb about the pond that isn’t big enough for two dragons holds true. A small country like Chile will always have unequal relations with bigger actors. Given its matured relations with Washington, while cultivating deepening ties with Beijing, Chile shouldn’t be surprised if it found itself between the chairs someday. To complicate matters, US-Chilean relations contain a military-strategic component vital for Chile’s security and thus also reinforcing dependence on Washington. But if economic ties with China deepen as expected, and the dragon’s pond is only so big, Santiago may be forced into zero-sum decisions on commercial or security interests. Being everybody’s darling won’t work forever, so now is the time to formulate a coherent foreign, not just economic, policy.

The same goes for China. As it expands its presence in Latin America it will not only have to develop ways to confront criticism, but also a strategy to navigate the morass of Latin geopolitics. So, this year’s APEC summit provided a window into an ever more complex international system.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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