A little over a week ago the first ministerial forum between China and the Community of Latin American States (CELAC) took place.
This is the grouping that includes all of the nations in the Americas other than the US and Canada, and the dependent territories.
The event in Beijing was of some significance as it demonstrated China’s strategic intent to deepen, transition, and further develop a role in the Americas in a manner that reflects a confident perspective on its future position in the world.
It followed from the endorsement of a new Chinese global foreign policy perspective in late 2014, visits last year by China’s President, Xi Jinping to Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba in mid-2014, and his meeting in July 2014 in Brazil with CELAC nations at the time of the BRICS summit before he travelled on to a separate summit with President Obama in California.
The overall context was provided last November when President Xi highlighted in the country’s highest level foreign policy forum China's pursuit of ‘major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’.
This signalled Beijing's diplomatic movement away from its traditional approach of ‘keeping a low profile’ while undertaking a ‘gradual rise’, towards, by implication, ‘brightness’ and ‘striving for accomplishment’, given its status ‘as a rising economic giant’ willing through its leadership to spell out new economic and security concepts.
Speaking against this background on January 8th in Beijing at the opening ceremony of the China-CELAC forum, President Xi said that the meeting sent a positive signal to the world that China, Latin America and the Caribbean could exert a significant and profound influence on South-South co-operation.
China and CELAC, he said, were committed to building a new pattern of relations involving political trust, mutually beneficial economic and trade cooperation, close cooperation in international affairs, and people-to-people and cultural engagement.
China’s view is that the world and the international order is undergoing a profound adjustment.
A large group of developing countries and emerging markets are now able to vigorously promote the development of what the Chinese President describes as a more just and reasonable international order.
It was, therefore, he suggested, the right time for China and the CELAC to deepen cooperation.
China had, he said, entered ‘a stage of new normal’, and will ‘maintain moderate-to-rapid growth in a period from now on’.
It was willing to combine its development with that of other developing countries, and build a new type of international relations around mutual cooperation.
This will provide countries in the world, including Latin American and Caribbean states, he said, with more opportunities in terms of markets, growth, investment and cooperation and as a goal could raise trade between China and the CELAC nations to US$500 billion and direct investment to US$250 billion within ten years.
China’s future role
He stressed that China now wanted to jointly build a new platform of China-CELAC cooperation from a long-term and strategic perspective and to develop a new comprehensive cooperative partnership.
His comments are worth repeating at some length as they provide a clear indication of the significant future role China sees itself playing in the whole Latin American and Caribbean region and how its place and role in the world is changing.
His remarks also reflect a new sense in Beijing that relations with the hemisphere will only move forward at the pace that China hopes for if in addition to maintaining its bilateral programmes, it can utilise CELAC as the vehicle to enable it to accelerate its political, developmental, economic and financial objectives multilaterally across the hemisphere.
January’s meeting in Beijing resulted in three agreements which mark a distinct progression in China’s relationship, reflecting a decision by all parties including the Caribbean that CELAC should be the political vehicle for future engagement.
The Beijing declaration, the detailed accompanying seven-page 2015-19 co-operation plan containing specific deliverables, and an agreement on institutional arrangements for the China-CELAC forum, mark a remarkable step-change in the overall relationship and present a new form of strategic challenge to the US in particular, and more generally to Europe, although China has made clear its willingness to co-operate with third countries in the hemisphere.
In a small win for the Caribbean there was language in the final communiqué that the Caribbean sub-region required special treatment regarding the strategies and co-operation projects of the forum, and acceptance that there would a more flexible approach to those nations that do not recognise China.
Of particular note was the presence of the Dominican Republic’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Alejandra Liriano de la Cruz, as the country presently does not recognise Beijing, although President Medina is shortly to make a major speech in which he is expected to spell out new foreign policy priorities.
Despite this, it is unclear whether the strategic context of what is now happening was widely recognised by all of those present from the Anglophone Caribbean, whether Caricom nations view what is now happening in the same strategic context as China, or are in agreement with one another as to how they wish to proceed with the detail.
Although CELAC has recognised the need for the Caribbean to have a continuing role in the new body’s leadership though whichever Prime Minister is the interim chair of Caricom, the overall Caribbean messaging seems unchanged.
The Caribbean’s focus remains on resources to enable it to address continuing indebtedness and budgetary problems.
In remarks that seemed not quite to share China’s development vision, let alone the detail of what the agreed co-operation plan proposes, the Bahamas Prime Minister, speaking in Beijing on behalf of Caricom, instead welcomed China’s 2013 US$3 billion commitment for investment on concessional terms, while indicating that the region also wanted to use this funding for budgetary support, debt restructuring and refinancing.
Prime Minister Christie said in addition, in the context of the threat that climate change poses to the region, cooperation with China should consider the provision of resources according to the needs and priorities of the recipient countries.
He also said that CARICOM was seeking international support to eliminate the practice that has graduated the region out of western development assistance.
Space does not permit much more on this subject this week, the difficulties of delivering in a Caribbean context what China is now proposing, or how China might better support in practical terms a region that is small and fragmented.
It does, however, suggest that the region should
- now look with greater political intensity across the Pacific;
- contrast China’s approach and values with North America and Europe’s limited but culturally familiar offers;
- and focus more on why CELAC has become the vehicle of choice for China as well as Europe for their high policy level policy dialogue with Latin America and the Caribbean.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at
16 January, 2015
Next week: How Chinese support in the Caribbean might be more practically directed.