China Is Recalibrating Its Latin America Strategy
If anyone thinks that China’s dropping investment figures in Latin America bode a retrenchment, they should think again.
China’s influence in Latin America has inspired analysis, fascination and a fair amount of hysteria. Depending on whom you ask, it’s seen as everything from an opportunity for the region to rebalance its alliances and profit from Chinese ambitions to an economic invasion that puts the hemisphere’s geopolitics at risk. But given China’s economic heft, the nature of its regime and the rising stakes of its geopolitical rivalry with the US, when looking at this phenomenon it’s best to keep in mind a slogan favored by Deng Xiaoping, China’s former paramount leader: “Seek truth from facts.” And the facts are changing in important ways that all policymakers in the Americas must take into account.
Chinese investments flows are actually slowing drastically — but the Asian giant is much more active in seeking a position in innovative industries such as green energy and technology, which it sees as crucial for its own economic aspirations. According to a report by Margaret Myers, Ángel Melguizo and Yifang Wang for the Inter-American Dialogue, China spent $6.4 billion in direct investment in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2022, 17% below the annual average for the 2020-2021 period and less than half the $14.2 billion invested annually between 2010 and 2019 on average.
“This drops reflects a substantial recalibration on the part of China’s government and its companies,” according to the report, released Monday. At the same time, the authors find that a growing piece of that shrinking pie is going to what’s loosely known as “new infrastructure” industries, including information and communication technology, renewable energy and electric vehicles and high-end manufacturing, among other strategic businesses. Investment from the Asian nation in those areas accounted for nearly 60% of the total flows to the region in 2022, or around $3.7 billion.
“Chinese companies are in many cases pursuing more engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean, but through smaller deals on average — and in frontier sectors that are directly aligned with Beijing’s own economic growth objectives,” it says.
Myers, Melguizo and Wang also found that China is cutting way down on one of its once-preferred tools for engagement: loans by its massive state banks. Between 2019 and 2022, the region received slightly more than $2.9 billion in loans from the country’s top development finance institutions, a fraction of what they used to lend back in 2010, when just one of these banks issued more than $35 billion to Latin America.
“China is still lending, but through different financial mechanisms, and with less overall focus on major infrastructure projects,” according to the paper.
So what to make of this set of transitions? First, they reflect a global change in strategy by China. With growing political tensions around the world, increasing competition with the US, a slowing domestic economy and other difficulties back home, China is understandably rethinking how it plays the global Great Game. At the same time, especially in Latin America, this shift reflects the troubled past of pledging huge infrastructure projects with ambiguous results. Some of the massive deals Latin American nations embarked on with China at the peak of the investment frenzy went nowhere — most notably in Venezuela, where major oil projects were announced only to be abandoned, with Venezuela struggling to pay back its Chinese loans.
China’s less-is-more approach is also, I suspect, a recognition of the need to move carefully in a region famous for volatile politics. Instead of embarking on big-ticket investments that may be put at risk when a friendly government exits and a new one with a rival ideology takes office, it is sensibly focusing on building ties with local authorities, from Jujuy province in northern Argentina to solar plants in Colombia. A lower profile also makes for less controversy around new projects.
Yet none of this should be confused with a lack of ambition or an exit strategy. As the Inter-American Dialogue report notes, interest in traditional sectors such as mineral wealth and raw materials remains robust, even if in different formats. Bilateral trade flows in the region have continued to grow, reaching about $500 billion. Chinese cars are flooding Santiago and Mexico City, and China is close to inaugurating its first mega-port in the region in Chancay, on the Peruvian coast.
For the US, and to a lesser extent the European Union, this strategic recalibration poses an additional challenge, particularly when talking about access to high technology such as 5G and artificial intelligence (see Andrew Small’s fascinating No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War with the West, where he describes the fiery political battles between China and its developed rivals for influence in new communication systems). This new realm of competition will also challenge Latin America’s policymakers in new ways. Given the close links between these technologies and political and economic governance, China’s new direction will inevitably raise the stakes for regional leaders as they navigate shifts in the geopolitical balance of power and chart the trajectory of their own societies.