Issue: 2020: Vol. 19, No. 1

China in Latin America: Major Impacts and Avenues for Constructive Engagement A U.S. Perspective

Article Author(s)

Margaret Myers

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Margaret Myers is director of the Asia and Latin America program at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC. 

Rebecca Ray

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Rebecca Ray is a Researcher at the BU GDP Center. She holds a PhD in economics from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and an MA in international development from the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. Since 2013, she has focused her research on China, development finance, and Latin America, including the annual China-Latin America Economic Bulletin series, the book project China and Sustainable Development in Latin America: the Social and ... 
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Over the past two years, U.S. officials have frequently pointed out China’s negative effects on the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region’s development and stability. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo typified this approach when he said during a trip to Mexico City in October 2018, “China has invested in ways that have left countries worse off” (Jourdan, 2019).

China’s effects on regional development are decidedly mixed. China’s contributions to the region’s economic growth are well-documented: China is LAC’s second-most important trading partner, second-most important source of M&A FDI, and top source of development finance. Nonetheless, Chinese demand for raw materials has accentuated regional dependence on commodities, in a process of “re-primarization” in South American economies, with troubling implications for the region’s long-term development prospects. Chinese investments have transformed the energy sectors in some countries, but the environmental effects of hydroelectric and other projects will be long-lasting in certain cases.

To achieve a wide range of development objectives — economic, environmental, and social — LAC must depend on increasingly well-planned and coordinated engagement from all of its major economic partners, including China. This is especially true in times of growing uncertainty, as the region grapples with humanitarian and migration crises, relentless corruption, and climate change, among other factors.

China’s Effect on Latin American Development

This report aims to qualify China’s effect on key development indicators in LAC, using the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a basis for analysis. The sections below consider relationships around aid, finance, investment, and trade, in turn.

Chinese Aid to LAC

Chinese development assistance to LAC, including concessional finance, grants, technical assistance and aid, has undoubtedly affected development outcomes in the region, especially in targeted communities. Chinese disaster assistance was critical after the 2016 Ecuador earthquake, for example, and China-funded housing projects in Venezuela have enhanced the lives of their beneficiaries. Chinese technical assistance, including in agricultural technology and telecommunications, is rising in step with Chinese capacity in these sectors. A growing number of Chinese companies, including China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) in Peru and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in Argentina, provide occasional donations to local communities, such as CNPC’s “Sinfonías del Mar” music program for unprivileged students in Piura. Barbara Stallings (2017) estimates that from 2010 to 2012, LAC was somewhat over-represented among recipients of Chinese official development assistance (ODA) (Stallings, 2017). LAC accounted for 8.4 percent of Chinese ODA compared to seven percent of its trade and just 2.8 percent of its FDI. Considering the focused nature of Chinese aid on targeted communities, these efforts have supported decent work, quality education, and health and well-being SDGs (Goals 3, 4, and 8).

Chinese Finance in LAC

China has provided more than $141 billion in development finance commitments to LAC governments and state-owned firms since 2005, more than the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), or CAF — the Development Bank of Latin America (Gallagher and Myers, 2019). It has done so primarily through the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Export-Import Bank of China (China Exim Bank), two national development finance institutions (DFIs).

These two DFIs have financed highway, transportation, and renewable energy projects, as well as mega-dams in Ecuador (Coca-Codo Sinclair), Colombia (Ituango), and Argentina’s (Condor Cliff) mega-dam, as well as high-tension power lines associated with Brazil’s Belo Monte mega-dam (Gallagher and Myers, 2019). This trend will likely continue, as LAC nations join the Belt and Road Initiative, signaling their interest to work with China on finance and investment projects. To date, 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries have signed onto the initiative, including some of the region’s more prominent economies of Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, and Panama.

Despite some clear benefits of China-backed projects to the region, the U.S. has criticized China’s overseas finance, noting a Chinese tendency for “predatory economic practices” (Jourdan, 2018). Washington is especially focused on China’s role in Venezuela, where CDB and China Exim are thought to have enabled government-level mismanagement. In January, U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo accused China of “propping up a failed regime” there through “ill-considered investments” in the oil-rich nation (Gehrke, 2019).

U.S. concerns are sometimes warranted. The lack of transparency in Chinese state financing may facilitate corruption in certain countries. CDB and China Exim Bank have often extended finance though credit lines without publicly specified purposes, creating a transparency challenge for domestic constituencies.  For example, these arrangements have stoked allegations in Venezuela that the funds have disappeared, without benefitting the Venezuelan population. 1

Concerns regarding debt sustainability of CDB and China Exim finance appear to be less well-founded. Despite its significant finance presence in the region, China has not had a serious impact on the region’s overall debt sustainability. If anything, China stands to lose money from Venezuela, the main LAC recipient of Chinese finance.  Analysts have predicted a default on Chinese oil-based payments as early as this year (Grisanti, and Lalaguna, 2018). More broadly, Ray and Wang (2019) show that even as Bolivia, Guyana, and Ecuador increased their Chinese debt between 2004 and 2016, their total external public and publicly guaranteed debt fell. In other words, Chinese credit substituted for traditional sources of credit, but each of these three countries ended the time period with less external debt than they had in 2004. Moreover, while aggressive creditor action gains more news coverage than debt forgiveness, China has shown itself willing to engage in debt restructuring many times recently.  Hurley, Morris, and Portelance (2018) document 84 cases of Chinese debt renegotiation, restructuring, or forgiveness since 2000. Kratz, Feng, and Wright (2019) calculate that this activity sums to approximately $50 billion in debt relief.

Finally, Chinese DFIs have exposed themselves to significant environmental and social risk in infrastructure finance in LAC. Like many national DFIs, CDB and China Exim Bank do not apply their own binding environmental and social standards when operating abroad. For example, the China-financed Rositas dam in southern Bolivia was recently suspended amid allegations of insufficient prior consultation with indigenous communities that would have been displaced for the dam (Hinojosa, 2018).  Colombia’s Ituango dam collapsed during construction, requiring the evacuation of downstream communities, though effective early-warning systems prevented casualties (Ray 2018). The Coca-Codo Sinclair dam project in Ecuador has been the subject of environmental, labor-related, and technical scrutiny. Furthermore, China’s deferential approach to environmental and social risk management has enabled Latin American governments to seek Chinese financing for higher-risk projects which, like the Rositas dam, did not attract financing from western DFIs (Ray, Gallagher, and Sanborn, 2018).

Overall, Chinese finance in LAC has facilitated regional transport and energy expansion, improving livelihoods and energy access (SDGs 7 and 8). But the extent to which these projects support local job creation (SDGs 1 and 8) and environmental sustainability (Goal 11) depends greatly on the contract negotiation and performance oversight by LAC governments, and it varies widely across the region.

China’s Investment Impact

Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) has bolstered the LAC region, bringing much-needed capital and creating an estimated two million jobs (Salazar-Xirinachs, Dussel Peters, and Armony, 2018). However, as with any transition of this size, it has not always been a smooth process. Chinese investors are relative newcomers and have faced steep learning curves in adapting to local labor and cultural expectations, as in the cases of Shougang mining in Peru and Golden Dragon copper in Mexico (Sanborn and Chonn, 2017; Schatan and Piloyon, 2017). Despite considerable reference to environmental and ecological cooperation in China’s LAC policy, and China’s own progress in recent years on the environmental SDGs, Chinese engagement in LAC appears to continue to struggle with sustainability.

LAC’s environmental and social standards are among the most ambitious in the world, and Chinese investors have at times struggled to meet them, especially when enforcement has been lacking from LAC national governments, as in the case of Sinopec in Colombia (Rudas Lleras and Cabrera Leal, 2017). In other cases, Chinese investors have been willing to take on environmentally-risky projects proposed by LAC governments, even as signs of potential environmental conflict brew around them. For example, Sinohydro’s hidrovía amazónica commercial water investment project in Peru will reportedly alter the dynamics of the affected rivers and their capacity to sustain lakes in natural parks such as the Pacaya Samiria (DAR 2019).

For more than 20 years, the U.S. has expressed concern regarding the strategic impact of Chinese investment, including the prospect for Chinese dual (civilian-military) use of port and other investment projects in Latin America. Concerns surfaced in 1998 about Hong Kong firm Hutchinson Whampoa running ports on either end of the Panama Canal, for example (United States Senate, 1998). Chinese billionaire Wang Jing’s canal adventures in Nicaragua were also closely monitored in Washington starting in 2013. Attention has focused more recently on Chinese investment in a deep space monitoring facility in Neuquén, Argentina, and its implications for U.S. security (Londoño, 2018).

U.S. concerns have tangible implications for LAC countries, as regional governments are encouraged to avoid engagement with China in favor of partnership with traditional allies. There are indeed drawbacks associated with the Chinese model, including the negative impacts of insufficient due diligence in certain infrastructure investment projects. The Nicaragua Canal project, for example, has been all but abandoned facing widespread public protests and unforeseen financing difficulties. However, U.S. pressure to limit economic options and partnerships could have unfortunate consequences for the region’s overall economic growth.

The Trade Story

Latin America’s trade relationship with China has also grown precipitously in the last decade. Chinese demand now accounts for more than 10 percent of LAC exports, including over 15 percent of LAC agricultural exports and more than 25 percent of LAC extractive exports such as minerals and oil (Ray and Wang, 2019).  In fact, China’s soaring demand for these commodities was strong enough to drive a global rise in minerals prices (Roach, 2012; Streifel, n.d.), further boosting export revenue in minerals-exporting countries globally, including in LAC (Arezki and Matsumoto, 2015). Moreover, the rise of China as an export market represented significant geographic diversification of Latin America’s exports, cushioning the blow from the U.S. recession of 2008-2009 (Jenkins, 2010; Wise Armijo, and Katada, 2015; Pastor and Wise, 2015).

Nonetheless, China’s imbalanced demand for raw materials from Latin America, coupled with its own development into a powerhouse of manufactured exports, has contributed to a process of re-primarization of LAC economies: a retreat from industrialization and toward primary commodity production. The rise of China as a global trading giant has created “winners” and “losers” in LAC countries’ trade balances, based on whether each country’s export profile is complementary or competitive with China (Jenkins, Dussel Peters, and Mesquitia Moreira, 2008).  Those countries with histories of exporting mineral and agricultural goods — particularly in South America — have seen those sectors bolstered. Meanwhile, Mexico and Central America, whose exports include an important share of manufactured goods destined for the U.S. market, have struggled to maintain that market in the context of strong competition from Chinese manufactured goods (Gallagher and Porsecanski, 2011). However, imports of Chinese energy technology, especially in renewable energy, has allowed for the dramatic expansion of the solar power industry in Chile, as well as electric transportation throughout LAC (Borregard et al 2017; Bermúdez Liévano 2019).

Of course, the China-led expansion in LAC agro-industrial and extractive activity is not solely an economic phenomenon, but also an environmental and social one. The expansion of agro-industrial and extraction activities into areas previously occupied by peasant and forest communities has come at a cost to those same communities, which have often been displaced and dispossessed of the natural resources necessary for their livelihoods, as reflected in environmentally-based conflicts surrounding that expansion throughout LAC (Bebbington and Bury, 2013; Roberts, Thanos, and Helvarg, 2003; Edwards, Roberts, and  Lagos, 2015). More broadly, the expansion of these economic frontiers into tropical forests has brought an end to years of progress in reducing Amazonian deforestation, with important climate implications for the planet as a whole (Fuchs et al, 2019). Thus, the region’s boom in agricultural and extractive exports, fueled by demand from China, has come with significant economic, social, and environmental costs for rural communities in the region, as well as environmental costs for the planet.

The overall impact of the China-LAC trade boom has been decidedly mixed from the perspective of SDGs. Progress toward economic SDGs, including poverty and hunger reduction, employment and growth (Goals 1, 2, and 8), has been boosted significantly in “winning” countries in South America, but faced challenges in “losing” countries such as Mexico, as well as in pockets of negatively-impacted rural communities in South America. Progress on climate and local environmental justice goals (Goals 11, 13, and 15) has also been lopsided, advanced by Chinese renewable energy technology imports but weighted down by the expansion of carbon-intensive agricultural and extractive industries, which compete for access to natural resources with traditional communities.


Until at least the spring of 2019, U.S. government officials had articulated concerns about Chinese engagement with Latin America. Most recently, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere,Kimberly Breier, made reference to the China-Latin America relationship in a April 26, 2019 speech at the Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C., noting China’s distorted market practices; the generational impact of 5G-related decision-making on national security, economy, and society; Chinese support for authoritarian regimes and surveillance states; and China’s responsibility for the worsening the crisis in Venezuela, among other issues (Breier, 2019). Breier added that while some Chinese projects are not “malign,” “a mere promise of ‘high-quality development’” was outweighed by a poor track record.

China’s messaging vis-à-vis Latin America, as articulated most recently in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs “2018 Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean” and a handful of other commonly-referenced proposals, such as the “1+3+6 Cooperation Framework” portrays a decidedly different perspective. It describes a partnership supportive of common development objectives and shared global interest, including climate change mitigation and upgrading global economic governance.

In practice, Chinese activity in LAC has had varied effects on the region’s development prospects. Chinese engagement appears to at least partially support several SDGs, including those related to employment, poverty, and economic growth. However, trade patterns between China and LAC have reinforced LAC’s traditional focus on commodities exports, and China’s investments in infrastructure and extractives raise environmental and social risks.

China nonetheless appeals to the region on the basis of equal partnership, south-south goodwill, and support for alternative development paths suited to countries’ “own conditions.” Some in LAC share U.S. skepticism of China’s intentions in the region, but the prospect for collaborative partnership with a fellow developing nation remains attractive to many others. Sustained interest in partnership with China, along with regional demand for Chinese investment and trade, will ensure stronger relations in the years to come. China would also appear fully committed to continued engagement, having recently extended the BRI to Latin America.

With China very much in the region to stay, LAC’s development outcomes are best supported by engagement from a range of partners, and growing commitment from both regional governments and external actors to sustainable, long-term development initiatives. Collaboration on areas of shared interest, whether by the U.S., China, and LAC, or by LAC governments and other partners nations, will help to promote positive development outcomes while reducing negative ones.

For example, East-West collaboration on aid efforts can take advantage of existing complementarities. Chinese and U.S. disaster responses and readiness exercises already resemble each other and could benefit from greater coordination.  The November 2010 China-Peru bilateral medical exercise Angel de Paz resembled U.S. Southern Command-led joint exercises, and the Chinese “Peace Ark” hospital ship and the USNS Comfort pursue parallel operations (Ellis, 2017). In the long term, it would be beneficial to avoid unproductive duplication and build long-term ties among agencies operating in the same aid arenas.

LAC’s environment ministries already support each other through the Red Latinoamericana de Fiscalización y Cumplimiento Ambiental (REDLAFICA), and the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency’s cooperates with REDLAFICA, organizing workshops on combatting environmental crimes like the illegal logging that has driven conflict throughout the Amazon basin. For its part, China has a history of collaborating with peers through the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED) but has not worked closely with REDLAFICA. Bridging this gap can help ensure that collaborating toward shared goals of sustainable development through LAC’s “China boom.”

Finally, DFIs also have an important role in cultivating greater joint progress toward shared goals. Collaboration between Chinese and western DFIs can pair Chinese DFIs’ size and flexibility with the local experience, access, and technical abilities of western institutions. As Ma, Studart, and Vasa (forthcoming 2020) explain in detail, each of these types of actors has complementary institutional strengths, all of which are needed for the development of climate-savvy, socially-inclusive infrastructure.  Chinese DFIs offer competitive capital costs and sizable financial resources, along with a wealth of technical expertise in the design and implementation of infrastructure projects. Western MDBs also have abundant access to capital, as both the World Bank and IDB have AAA bond ratings. What CAF is lacking in this regard it partially offsets through its perfect history of borrower repayment, emphasizing its excellent relationships with regional governments (Ray and Kamal, 2019). Finally, LAC NDBs have unique vantage points for identifying and cultivating feasible and sustainable projects. By working together to identify, finance, and oversee the next generation of LAC infrastructure, these various types of DFIs can help ensure that these projects facilitate LAC’s progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.


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  1. Author (Myers) interviews with Venezuelan journalist and former PdVSA personnel, May 2016.