China in Latin America book out

Finally, after a dozen China in Africas, here is a China in Latin America, written by R. Evan Ellis. His post as “professor at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies” made me wary, but, even though the book is based on the usual combination of newspaper accounts and interviews, it is in fact good. It has a wealth of country-by-country information that is exceedingly difficult to obtain elsewhere (unlike the now-considerable overlap of sources about Africa), which includes very useful brief descriptions of Chinese immigration and everything else you would expect (from trade and infrastructural projects to military cooperation and what he calls “intellectual infrastructure,” which includes the teaching of Chinese). One shortcoming here is that there is no separate discussion of development aid, even though Ellis does mention low-interest loans.

The book really does fill a gap. For instance, I have long known about the large and new Fujianese immigration to Argentina and the fact that these migrants run a lot of groceries, and have wanted to know whether this group has anything to do with infrastructure investments from China. Ellis tells me that it does not, yet. He also confirms that although Brazil has the largest number of Chinese, Chinese megaprojects here have been relatively insignficant (partly because of a lack of excitement about Chinese loans and labour) and there is no rush on the Chinese language, unlike in Chile (though this section is made less reliable by the fact that Ellis uses only Spanish and English sources, no Portuguese ones). His data in some cases go up to December 2008, so that he is already able to account for some of the effects of the recession. As of that date, it appears that the ambitious transcontinental rail and road projects in which Chinese companies and banks have been mooted as investors and contractors have not yet taken off.

The book is not led by a preconception of what China is doing in Latin America — perhaps because it is not so easy to have such preconceptions, unlike in Africa. This makes the continent all the more interesting as a case study. Indeed, Ellis details how the resource-shopping of Chinese mining and metallurgy companies in South America often takes the form of joint ventures that are not unidirectional; thus, Chilean-Chinese and Chilean-Brazilian joint ventures have announced plans to open smelters and fertilizer plants in China, a Brazilian company owns Chinese nickel mines, and a Chilean wine makers has invested in wine production in Xinjiang. While nearly all current South American administrations are keen on contacts with China, this has not prevented them from taking measures such as Chile’s ban on Chinese fishing vessels using port facilities as retaliation for what they say is Chinese overfishing of the sea outside Chile’s territorial waters.

Ellis also notes that despite all the attention of China’s “strategic partnership” with Venezuela and its warm welcome by leftist Andean presidents, Chinese investors, like all others, prize political stability, transparency, and developed infrastructure. This means that they have been far keener to provide loans to Chile, Argentina and Brazil than, say, Venezuela. Like in Africa, Chinese companies (and presumably politicians) are keen to leverage their comparative advantage in unstable places shunned by Western investors (or where Western investors are unwelcome), but they are equally intent to enter larger, stabler countries and play by the rules if they have to.

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