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Colombia’s geostrategic challenge with China

A version of this article first appeared in the Colombian magazine Dinero, on July 14, 2020.

It would seem there is no debate concerning Colombia’s geopolitical position with China. The Asian country has stated ambitious plans for our country, beyond the expansion of trade relations. The problem is that Colombia does not seem to be looking any further.

A year ago, President Iván Duque traveled to China intending to expand Colombia’s trade relations as China is Colombia’s second most important trading partner, after the United States. From that moment, we have witnessed strong signals suggesting strengthening ties, including the tender for the Bogotá Metro, which was awarded to China Harbor Engineering Company Limited and Xi’an Metro Company Limited; the construction of the Bogotá Regional Light-rail tendered to China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC); and finally, the most important gold project in the country, the Buriticá Project, acquired by Zijin Mining Gold.

At the same time, Colombia celebrated that the first shipment of Hass avocado arrived in China and will open up business opportunities for the country. The government sees great potential in expanding its offering of agricultural exports to China. According to ProColombia, the country’s export and foreign investment promotion agency, there is great potential for flowers, fruit derivatives, processed fruits, pork meat, coffee and its derivatives, pineapple, organic banana, lemon, blueberries, and exotic fruits. In the same vein, Information and Communication Technology Minister Karen Abudinen announced that Colombia would start its testing of 5G technology, a field where Chinese companies play a leading role.

It would appear that the results of President Duque’s trip to China are beginning to be seen. However, there is less clarity as to the future direction of the geopolitical relationship between the two countries. In this sense, some doubts appear. Let’s begin.

Colombia’s most important political and economic ally continues to be the United States, which is at the same time China’s great geostrategic rival. Washington views China’s increasing political and commercial influence in Latin America with great concern. Likewise, it has also shown sensitivity regarding the dominant economic position that Chinese interests have in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Brazil. The United States has subtly warned Colombia about its growing commercial proximity to China, suggesting, among other things, that Chinese state companies Huawei and ZTE would leak private data to the Chinese Communist Party.

In the short term, the US will not look to throw a wrench into the burgeoning trade relationship between Colombia and China, but the nomination of Mauricio Claver-Carone for the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) suggests that the United States wants to ideologically guide the IDB to place American interests above those of China in Latin America.

The lack of US presence in the region, or commercial absence, has been a key factor that has paved the way for Chinese interests. For example, how many US companies have tendered in Colombia’s major road and rail infrastructure projects in recent years? How many loans has the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) made to companies seeking to invest in mega projects in Colombia? Although the US is currently buying agricultural products and fossil fuels, America’s trade ambitions in Colombia have stalled, while China shows an enormous appetite.

This scenario may benefit Colombia, in case the country considers that the commercial opportunities it can obtain with China outweigh the potential consequences that it could face following Trump’s re-election, which would entail an escalation of the trade war between the two countries. Regardless, if Joe Biden wins the election in November, it is likely that the geopolitical contest between China and the United States will continue and Colombia is in an uncomfortable position.

It must be emphasized that Chinese investment in foreign countries does not come with political strings attached. China does not interfere in the internal politics of other countries and expects the same respect from its trading partners.

Despite this, China and Colombia do not share the same democratic values, which for Colombia includes the importance of free and fair elections within a framework of democratic governance, the respect for the human rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and the legitimate rights to political opposition. Although Colombia has a mixed record in some of the above, China reportedly has a very poor performance in these fields. The treatment of opponents in Hong Kong, the re-education camps for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, the absence of democratic elections, and the regime’s inflexibility with its internal critics (including Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize) are examples of the character of Chinese power which suggest important differences with Colombia.

Even though China has aggressively tried to expand its global economic capital through the Belt and Road Initiative – an ambitious direct investment project of more than USD 89 billion to finance major infrastructure works including trains, roads, and ports – Colombia remains the only Andean country that has not been formally linked to the project so far.

Beyond selling avocados, bananas, and other agricultural products, Colombia should be more interested in studying its role in China’s geopolitical strategy and, consequently, start a serious debate with the country’s public opinion regarding the future of its political and commercial relationship with China. Will it be possible to start such a debate?

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