Santa Claus (with a
Chinese appearance) seems to have arrived almost two months late in
Colombia, but most ministers still followed Uribe to sit on his lap.
The president of Colombia’s senate, Hernan Andrare, who visited China in December,
has proven himself to be a very good student of diplomatic etiquette, especially when it comes to
Chinese leaders and the all important act of ‘giving face’ –
loosely to honour someone. This is certainly what Xi Jinping, Chinese
Vice-president, received during his three day visit. Given that he is expected to replace the current President Hu Jintao, the government may have developed good guanxi. However, it is important to analyze whether Colombia is penning a sound deal.
China’s increasingly assertive diplomatic action in Latin America (LA)
over the past few months is partly strategic and party commercial. In November last year China
released its first policy white paper on the region, just a few days
before the APEC meeting in Peru. Since LA is in the United States’
backyard, this white paper is very significant. It may be no
coincidence that these efforts were intensified after the financial
crisis erupted in late 2008. The Asian giant could be attempting to
strengthen diplomatic and commercial ties by offering aid and promising
investment to countries during these dire times, in hopes of emerging
revitalized after the crisis compared to the US and Europe.
There are also
commercial reasons. China is touring the world with a blank cheque book
in order to secure the supply of resource and raw materials that
its booming economy needs to function. Politically, China cannot afford
an unemployment rate of over 10 per cent as is customary in Colombia.
Another reason for the visits stems from China’s concern over the US
stimulus plan’s “buy American” clause. Recent visits to LA by top Chinese officials may also be aimed at keeping markets open for goods produced
in China’s sweatshops. It is important to note that LA is somewhat
stronger economically as a result of its relatively closed economies.
Paradoxically, the government is opening Colombia’s market
indiscriminately. This would be wise if
Colombia’s industries were strong enough to compete globally.
Uribe has been
shrewd in welcoming China. Economic flirtations with the Asian giant
could offer alternatives given the impasse facing the Free Trade
Agreement in the US Congress. China is the perfect partner thanks to
their policy of non-interference in other countries’ national affairs,
which fits well with Uribe’s new disdain for international scrutiny.
Currently, however, trade with China has been lopsided. Colombia’s
largest trade deficit is with China. In 2008 it stood at USD 3,418
billion, with China’s imports valued at just USD 409 million.
It would be worth
mentioning to the government and industrialists that their aim of
increasing exports to China is futile since China is only interested in
stimulating their local consumption. Even direct investment from China
is dubious. Generally, China’s investment include “buy Chinese”
clauses, be it labour or materials, which makes investments less
effective in stimulating the local economy. Nevertheless, this
“investment” does benefit the pockets of politicians. China, after all,
is the second most likely country to pay bribes abroad to secure deals. It would be interesting to know more about the mayor of Bogota’s deal with the Chinese for the improvement of the transport system.
It is important to
learn what these accords, signed during the recent Chinese Vice-president’s visit, mean for common people. The fact that these
agreements have remained secret may reveals their implications.
Colombia’s tactless dealings with the Chinese already caused a
fiasco when the Chinese were granted visa-free entry into the territory
in 2007, only to be revoked four months later due to the dramatic
increase in human trafficking incidents. Let’s hope that ‘face giving’
can also be accompanied by some ‘indigenous malice’ on the part of Colombian politicians.
Author Sebastian Castaneda is Colombian studies psychology and political economy at the University of Hong Kong