- China's Belt and Road Initiative:What Role for Latin America?
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has evolved considerably since its inception in 2013, from an effort to reinvigorate Silk Road connectivity to something of a catchall for Chinese foreign policy, as Belt and Road cooperation agreements are signed across the globe and Chinese trade and investment—big and small—advances under the initiative's banner. Though excluded from the BRI in its earliest phases, the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region was recently designated as a potential destination for Belt and Road investors. However, the extent to which LAC stands to benefit from enhanced Chinese engagement will depend more on the region's capacity for policy coordination and strategic planning than on its official inclusion in the initiative.
Backed by the Silk Road Fund, China's policy banks (China Development Bank and China Export-Import Bank), and the Asian Infrastructure Bank, the BRI is the signature foreign policy initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and one with wide-ranging economic, diplomatic, and geopolitical aims. The initiative imagines the development of a multitrillion-dollar web of infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa, and Europe, primarily to promote trade and other forms of connectivity while improving prospects for economic development among partner nations. Over the past five years or so, the project has evolved from a focus on two specific geographical routes—an overland Silk Road Economic Belt and a sea-based Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road—toward an increasingly global endeavor. BRI principles are now applicable even in the Arctic region, according to China's Arctic Policy, released in 2018 (Xinhua, 2018).
Much like the Arctic, LAC was only recently included in the BRI's growing ambit. But despite the region's relative distance, both geographically and conceptually, from the BRI, Latin American leaders and diplomats have sought inclusion in the initiative [End Page 239] ever since Belt and Road first came into being. As far back as 2015, Bolivia's ambassador to China stated that the BRI is "extremely important to Bolivia's future development" (Yu, 2015). Shortly thereafter, Peru's former foreign minister and ambassador to China, Gonzalo Gutiérrez Reinel, published an article in People's Daily expressing Peru's hope that the Belt and Road would be extended to Latin America (Reinel, 2016). Around the same time, Peru's ambassador to China, Juan Carlos Capuñay, published an article in the Chinese media in which he described the BRI's orientation as "promoting mutual reliance, economic complementarity, and technology transfers between China and Latin America," as well as "connecting the both the Atlantic and the Pacific," concluding that the BRI would be an important measure in Peru's economic development (Capuñay, 2016, 74). And in 2016, Ecuador's ambassador to China, José Borja, went so far as to credit the BRI with having already boosted Ecuador's trade to the Asian region (Wang, 2017).
More recently, Chile's ambassador to China, Jorge Heine, praised the initiative's intent to unite the world through infrastructure and called on Latin America to join (Zhong, 2017). Former Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra was similarly quoted as saying that the initiative is "a crucial multilateral integration project that goes beyond the traditional Silk Road to reach Latin America," and, in a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, that Argentina "is willing to actively participate in the building of the Belt and Road" (Hui, 2018).
The precise impact of these and other efforts to link LAC and the BRI is impossible to measure, but recent moves by Beijing appear to have heeded Latin American calls. China still refrains from formally including the LAC region on its BRI maps, but has gone to some lengths in recent months to extend the BRI framework across the Pacific. In May 2017, for example, the Chinese president called the Latin American region "a natural extension of the Maritime Silk Road" in a meeting with Argentine President Mauricio Macri, while he attended the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing (Xinhua, 2017). The region was also called an "important participant" in the BRI by Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the...