Between May 31 and June 6, Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to the Western Hemisphere as a strong display of the key role of Latin America and the Caribbean. As part of his tour he will visit the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica, as well as Trinidad and Tobago.
As this will only be President Jinping’s second foreign policy tour since he was inaugurated this past March (the first one was to Russia and to attend a BRICS summit in South Africa), Beijing clearly considers Latin America and the Caribbean to be strategically important trade partners and allies.
Visits and initiatives
It is important to do a brief analysis of China’s relations with each country that the Chinese president will visit. It makes sense that he will travel to Mexico, which enjoys a vibrant economy.
It is interesting to note that Beijing and Mexico City have had historically tense relations, as these countries have competed with one another to supply manufactured goods to the U.S.
This competition was best exemplified by Mexico’s resistance to China’s bid to join the World Trade Organization. But times are changing and the two states have grown close economic and diplomatic ties, which were enhanced by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s recent April trip to China.
Given the fact that both heads of state were only recently inaugurated, these types of diplomatic visits so early into their presidencies could signal a strong trans-oceanic rapprochement in coming years.
Meanwhile, Costa Rica has a growing economy and—in spite ofrecent scandalsinvolving its president—is regarded as a success story. Jinping’s trip is being preceded by the late May meeting between Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli and Bernal Jimenez, president of Costa Rica’s National Liberation Party.
It is worthy to note that China has reasons to increase ties with San Jose. Besides being a rising economy in Central America, the country has ambitious foreign policy goals.
Moreover, President Jinping will travel to Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean. China has been very active in the Caribbean in recent years, utilizing investments and loans to gain allies among regional states (this is often coined as “dollar diplomacy”).
For example, the country is helping the Bahamas build an ambitious hotel resort known as the Baha Mar complex.According to reports, Chinese companies are also heavily involved in Trinidad and Tobago, constructing projects such as the “Couva Children’s Hospital, UWI South Campus, Debe and a Confucius Institution.”
Certainly, it is impossible to discuss China without mentioning Taiwan, as the two governments are trapped in a never ending battle for influence and allies. David Lin, Taiwan’s foreign minister, travelled to the Caribbean last January, a diplomatic tour that took him to Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Haiti.
There has been speculation that the Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-jeou, will also carry out a trip to the region, which has yet to happen. Besides counterbalancing Beijing’s influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, Taiwan is also seeking to “create favorable conditions for Taiwan’s future inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”
Why not Venezuela?
Even though the Chinese head of state will have a full schedule during his four-nation trip, it is meaningful that he will not be travelling to Venezuela, which is still dealing with the aftermath of the passing of its longtime leader, Hugo Chavez, and the controversial April 14 elections, which saw Nicolas Maduro emerge as the new president.
During Chavez’s rule, the South American country purchased Chinese military hardware and, more importantly, China has become a vital consumer of Venezuelan oil. Hence, it would have made sense for President Jinping to travel to Caracas, as a way to cement relations with the new Maduro presidency.
However, it seems like the Chinese government is avoiding Caracas due to ongoing tensions in the South American country, oil interests notwithstanding, until the situation quiets down. A similar occurrence already happened last February, whenRussian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, carried out a brief tour of Latin America (he visited Brazil and Cuba), but skipped Venezuela at a time when the interim Maduro government (before the elections) could have used some symbolic diplomatic support from Chavez’s allies.
Certainly, a head of state does not need to visit every single ally during a diplomatic tour, nor is it conceivable that he would have the time to do so. That is what his ambassadors, ministers and other high ranking officials are there for.
For example,General Wang Guanzhing, of the Chinese military’s High Command, recently visited Bolivia, where he met with Ruben Saavedra, the Andean nation’s defense minister. During the meeting, the two signed a decree to strengthen bilateral security relations.
Nevertheless, given the close ties between Caracas and Beijing during the Chavez era, China’s decision to overlook Venezuela indicates that times may be changing and Maduro should not take previous alliances for granted. The new Venezuelan president may will to work hard to reaffirm the global relationships that his predecessor had established with the world powers like China and Russia.
Issues with Venezuela aside, it goes without saying that President Jinping’s tour will help strengthen China’s relations in Latin America and the Caribbean from both an economic stance, as well as a diplomatic one (vis-à-vis the Beijing’s “question,” to put it mildly, over Taiwan).