Strictly speaking, the so called Maritime Silk Road, formerly known as the Spice Road, connected the ports of China with those of Asia, the east coast of Africa and the Mediterranean, where it ended. It was Ferdinand Magellan—with the discovery of a new navigation route—who eroded the then Portuguese monopoly of this trade route. Magellan’s alternative route skirted the southern straits of the American continent until arriving at the Spice Islands. After signing the Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain in 1494, the two great powers delimited their navigation areas in the world, leaving Madrid with the direct route to the Spice Islands via the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike contacts between China and Europe through the land Silk road and the maritime Spice road, the links between China and Latin America developed under the guidance and colonial interests of Spain and Portugal. Under these guidelines, between 1565 and 1815, indirect voyages were enabled with a first stretch that covered the route between China and the Philippines, and a connection via the Pacific Ocean that linked Manila and the port of Acapulco on the west coast of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
After the Opium Wars, the trade connection that indirectly linked China and America through cabotage journeys of the Manila Galleon, became direct as the traffic of coolies between China and America—undertaken by the Portuguese and English—put an end to the Spanish monopoly on the foreign trade of Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.
The impact of the Manila Galleon was significant for Mexico, southern United States, Central America and the Pacific coast of South America, particularly Peru and Chile. However, it had a lesser influence among the current members of the Common Market of the South (Mercosur), with the exception of Brazil, a country directly connected to Macao through Portuguese ships that arrived at the coasts of Sao Salvador de Bahía after ending the trade monopoly with the metropolis. These historical data refute the idea of Latin America as a “natural extension” of the new Maritime Silk Road.
CHINA SETS ITS EYES ON LATIN AMERICA
One Belt, One Road is a strategic initiative proposed by the Chinese government that, in its original project, takes up the land and water routes to Asia established in the past by the great powers to connect three continents: Asia; Europe; and Africa.
Possibly including Latin America as part of the Belt and Road Initiative is a diplomatic turn for the government of China, which started brewing in 2015, when President Xi Jinping raised the possibility of incorporating a southern line to connect Oceania as a “natural extension.”
Later, with the arrival of Donald Trump to the White House, the government of Xi Jinping decided to leverage the geo-economic spaces available after the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and give the Belt and Road Initiative a more global scope. In this way, China would have a link with a faraway land—in geographical terms—as is Latin America, and challenge the United States in their own backyard.
"The Maritime Silk Road with the ports of China with those of Asia, the east coast of Africa and the Mediterranean"
During the meeting with Argentinian President Mauricio Macri in Beijing, the Chinese leader expressed his vision of Latin America as a “natural extension” of the Maritime Silk Road of the 21stcentury. The Chinese president’s ideas were taken up by his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi who—in statements to the press—highlighted the inclusive nature of the initiative, “China does not intend to establish a clear geographical limit for One Belt, One Road, and is open to all like-minded countries and regions.” He then added, “This initiative is not a member club, but rather a circle of friends who participate openly.”
OF NATURAL EXTENSION AND LIKE-MINDED IDEAS
At least two questions stem off from statements made by the Chinese leaders. Where does the idea of “natural extension” come from? What does China understand by “like-minded ideas?”
The idea of “natural extension” comes from the diplomatic arena. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses this expression to support its sovereign claims in the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the islands close to continental China under the concept of “natural extension” of the continental platform. This concept comes from geography, is used in Public International Law and is mentioned repeatedly in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In contrast, “like-minded ideas” is the simplest translation for the proverb zhitongdaohe (志同道合), which according to the dictionary of Chinese proverbs published in Henan, means “to appreciate the same ideals and follow the same path.” That is, it refers to the idea of unifying ideals and interests in an identical path. Hence, Foreign Affairs Minister Wang invites all like-minded countries that agree with the spirit of China’s initiative to partner up.
The “natural extension” to Latin American countries that profess “like-minded ideas” with regards to the Belt and Road Initiative sets out the following characteristics, benefits and challenges:
- Sender-receiver relationship. The Silk Road proposal highlights the proactive nature of Chinese diplomacy with a view to incorporate Latin American countries in its global strategy; contrary to Latin American countries prone to assume passive postures regarding a new foreign initiative.
- Articulate development strategies. Its central axis revolves around the term articulate(对接). In other words, it is based on the idea that China has its own development strategy and that it intends to articulate it with that of other countries. One Belt, One Road is precisely there to fulfill that purpose. In the case of Latin America, Mauricio Macri, in his capacity as pro temporepresident of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), proposed that the IIRSA (Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America) articulate infrastructure projects that are feasible through One Belt, One Road in South America. This proposal aims to show the ability of Latin American countries to adapt the Chinese strategy to the regional strategy, as well as to respond to criticisms that question the passiveness of foreign policy from countries of the subcontinent.
- Latin American infrastructure. The Chinese strategic initiative tends to favor road, railway and communication infrastructure, which would multiply contacts between Latin America, China and other trade destinations of the region. The core of the articulation is the need for financing and technical assistance for Latin American projects. However, two obstacles for the development of Latin American infrastructure projected by China come up: 1) how can we think of new railway projects when the Mexico-Queretaro train project was canceled and the bioceanic train project connecting the coasts of Brazil and Peru has, at least, been suspended?; 2) China’s virtual projects and interests in the region compete with initiatives and interests of other actors, like the European Union, as well as with the consequent strategic positioning of the countries of the region towards the great powers. It is worth mentioning the agreements signed by the governments of Bolivia and Switzerland for the infrastructure planning and construction, and supply of locomotives and wagons destined for the Bolivian bioceanic train project; as well as agreements signed by the governments of Argentina and Switzerland aiming to jointly develop activities related to the railway infrastructure.
- Economic asymmetries and imbalances. One Belt, One Road represents an opportunity to develop the infrastructure of the region, to increase trade and to attract investment, without necessarily eliminating structural imbalances of economic relations between China and the subcontinent; on the contrary, it can increase them. In other words, One Belt, One Road says nothing about the losers in the relationship, the center-periphery way, the asymmetries, the trade concentrating on few products and the financial dependency that marks the relationship between China and some countries in the region.
- Redirecting capital to Latin America. Had the original plan been maintained, Latin America would lose out on potential infrastructure investments and credits foreseen in the Belt and Road Initiative. However, thanks to the presence of the leaders of Argentina and Chile at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, held in Beijing in May of 2017, countries in the region were considered in this initiative. Part of the capital originally planned for Eurasian projects can be redirected to Latin America, but it will depend on whether or not the governments decide to join this project.
"One Belt, One Road is a strategic initiative proposed by the Chinese government that, in its original project, takes up the land and water routes to Asia established in the past by the great powers to connect three continents: Asia; Europe; and Africa"
In sum, historically, Latin America has not been a “natural extension” of the traditional Silk and Spice roads. However, the Chinese project to modernize and expand these ancestral trade routes offers Latin American countries the opportunity to access enormous financial resources that the second world power intends to use to increase its global power. The Belt and Road Initiative’s articulating axis is financing and technical assistance to execute infrastructure projects. Even if China manages to implement all the projects contemplated, doubts persist about its ability to limit the risks associated with the asymmetries and other structural imbalances inherent in the initiative. Its implementation could have negative effects and exacerbate them.
*PhD in Political Science. Master’s degree in Law from Peking University. Researcher at Conicet and y profesor titular de la Universidad Nacional de Rosario, Argentina.