Santos’ appointment of Carlos Urrea as new ambassador to China signals the government’s continued focus on trade with the Middle Kingdom, but also highlights important shortcomings of the foreign service.
Guillermo Ricardo Velez, the outgoing ambassador to China, as most Colombian ambassadors, is not a career diplomat. Before taking the post in 2004, Velez was the head of Colombia’s Proexport office in London.
When speaking to newspaper El Espectador earlier this year, Velez claimed to have done a good job regarding Colombia’s exports to China. In 2004, Colombia exported $300 million to China, while last year that figure reached $2 billion. Nevertheless, he did not mention that in the same period Colombia’s imports from China increased from $1 billion to $5.5 billion. Now China is Colombia’s second trade partner after the United States, but with an increasing trade deficit for Colombia.
The nature of these statistics are mainly the result of Bogota’s shortsighted foreign policy. As a result of Colombia’s isolation in terms of international politics, especially in Asia, for much of Uribe’s presidency, the country lagged behind regional neighbors in embracing the Chinese effect in global politics. For instance, Colombia was one of the last countries to announce its participation in the Expo 2010 Shanghai. It was only after a trip to Colombia in January 2009 by China’s vice President, Xi Jinping, that resulted in Colombia confirming its attendance.
Yet, Velez is also partly responsible for the former government’s lack of vision on its strategy towards China. Ambassadors, apart from implementing policy, are also an important authority in guiding policy towards a particular country, especially a country like China. It may be argued, therefore, that Velez was unsuccessful in transmitting the strategic possibilities that China offers. These possibilities concern the overall geopolitical realm of bilateral relations rather than just its economic component.
With the appointment of the new ambassador the government has decided to continue on a similar tone. Urrea is currently the president of Colombia’s largest lingerie maker Leonisa S.A., a successful company judging by its strong presence in other Latin American nations and recent expansion to the lucrative U.S. market. This achievement is the laudable in light China’s competitive advantage in the textile sector.
Urrea’s accomplishments in managing the family business, however, does not guarantee his diplomatic competence in Beijing. China may be the world’s second biggest economy but its interest in Colombia permeate the economic layer. China, as a world power, takes its individual engagements as part of a larger strategy. At such Colombia must also be cognizant on how to benefit and avoid costly decisions.
A competent person for this specific job ought to fulfill certain characteristics such as being conversant in Chinese, an expert on China’s history and politics, and versed on Colombia’s interests. Speaking Chinese, however, does not guarantee a complete grasp on China’s political sensitivities. This was exemplified by the U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, who strolled through an anti-government protest in Beijing less than two weeks ago. But having an ambassador speaking Mandarin does enhance Bogota’s image in Chinese leaders’ eyes as does the fact that Chinese ambassadors to Colombia speak fluent Spanish.
Knowledge of China’s internal workings and interests as well as Colombia’s foreign policy strategy are, however, primordial prerequisites. Given the high profile of the post and importance of the host country, learning on the job is not presentable and can lead to diplomatic embarrassments, with all the implications that that entails.
When appointing Urrea for the post Juan Manuel Santos stated that Urrea is, “a first-rated replacement as Ambassador to China…that will represent us in that great nation with great effectiveness.” Although Urrea may be a suitable candidate to replace Velez, the question remains on whether he is the ideal candidate for such an important post. This only highlights the shortcomings of Colombia’s foreign service personnel and politicization.