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Política Internacional / 08/07/2021


Weapons, Iron Ore and Electricity: Latin America Becoming China's New Backyard

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Weapons, Iron Ore and Electricity: Latin America Becoming China's New Backyard

Chinese companies and state-owned banks have invested billions in Latin America, leveraging Asian economic interests on the continent

Latin America has become a fundamental part of the project to expand China's global influence. The region is increasingly strengthening its ties with Beijing. Sectors such as mining, production and distribution of electricity have increasing Chinese investment in projects that are not transparent and generate income and, invariably, a gigantic environmental impact.

A report by Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American Studies at the US Army's Institute for Strategic Studies, portrays how the Covid-19 pandemic helped accelerate Chinese influence on the continent.

“Covid-19 has caused economic setbacks in several of these [South American] countries, so they are now more likely to agree to some Chinese projects that they would have rejected in the past,” says Ellis.

China has imported around 75% of the iron ore traded in the world and around 60% of its copper ore Latin American countries.

Latin American countries joined the Chinese project “New Silk Road” (Belt and Road Initiative, the acronym in English), an initiative launched by the Xi Jinping government in 2015 that finances infrastructure projects abroad in nearly 70 countries.

Over the past 20 years, bilateral trade has grown 25-fold, US$12 billion in 1999 to US$306 billion in 2018, placing China as Latin America's second largest trading partner, behind the United States.

BRI in 18 Latin countries

For David Dollar, a member of the U.S. Brookings Institution, BRI is a controversial issue in the West because of its lack of transparency. He points out that it is difficult to obtain reliable information about the finances of the initiative, as well as specific projects and their terms.

According to the US-based Atlantic Council, Panama, in November 2017, became the first Latin American country to officially endorse BRI, five months after trading Taiwan's diplomatic ties with China's.

Over the next two years, 18 of the 33 countries in the region would join the BRI. The exceptions are huge: Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico – the four largest economies in the region, responsible for almost 70% of its GDP – followed the initiative closely, but did not sign.

Environmental and indigenous impact

The high concentration of Chinese activity in Latin America's agricultural sectors has considerably increased demand for water supply systems and increased deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2015 study coordinated by the Institute of Governance Boston University Global Economics.

Some projects, such as hydroelectric plants, provoked protests indigenous groups in several Latin American countries.


The Chinese have also put forward a proposal to dominate “electrical connectivity” in Latin America, a subject covered by Evan Ellis and recently published on the website of the Jamestown Foundation, based in the United States.

Ellis's article, published on May 21, shows how Chinese companies have become involved in the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity across the region, expanding their position in activities key to the “connectivity” of Latin American economies.

This approach also extends to the construction and operation of ports, roads, railways, telecommunications, e-commerce and other infrastructure.

But not everything has worked out as planned. A China-backed transcontinental railroad designed to link Brazil on the Atlantic coast with Peru on the Pacific coast has sparked criticism for not taking environmental concerns into account. It would pass through sensitive ecosystems in the Amazon region.

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