Dr. Ariel Armony is the director of international programs and director of the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh as well as a prominent scholar in Chinese-Latin American relations. I had the pleasure of discussing with him the book Beyond Raw Materials: Who are the Actors in the Latin America and Caribbean-China Relationship, which Dr. Armony co-edited with Enrique Dussel Peters, the director of UNAM’s Centro de Estudios China-México. Click here to download or read the full PDF of this book.
I see this book was a collective work between multiple authors and publishers. Why was collaboration so important to the creation of this work?
The role of China in Latin America is multifaceted. It has been argued that China becoming a key protagonist in Latin America and the Caribbean is the most important transformation in the region since the 20th century. This is a hypothesis, but it is significant because it means that an increasing number of scholars and experts on Latin America and China have been looking at this relationship and how it has changed. The particular partnership that underwrites this project is a good example of the collaborations emerging around this topic. We collaborated with organizations based in Latin America, like la Red Académica de América Latina y el Caribe sobre China coordinated by the Centro de Estudios China-México, the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation in Germany, and the Fundación Foro Nueva Sociedad. The volume brings together authors from Argentina, Australia, China, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, and the United States.
In the introduction, you describe two broad stages of China’s relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean. Could you explain those two stages and how this work addresses the various elements of the second stage?
The two stages in the relationship began at the turn of the 21st century. The first stage, approximately the first decade and a half of the century, was characterized by booming trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) flows, making China the second largest trading partner in the region and first for countries such as Brazil, Chile, and Peru. This boom translated into substantial economic growth for some countries, but it also caused an increase in Latin America’s trade deficit. Exports from the region had a lower value-added and a lower level of technology than the imports from China. Also, the exports to China were concentrated in only a few commodities. In fact, soy beans, minerals, and petroleum accounted for more than eighty percent of Latin America’s exports to China. Now we are in a second stage, which emerged a couple of years ago and is characterized by a deepening of this relationship, including the launching of new mechanisms, a cross regional dialogue such as the China-CELAC forum, a growing immigration from China, increasing cultural exchange, a boom in tourism, and an increasing presence of Chinese businesses in Latin America and the Caribbean. The second stage is marked by a deep dive in the price of commodities, especially iron ore, copper, and petroleum, and this has had an impact on GDP growth projections for the region. As China becomes more involved in Latin America, it is increasingly important to understand the various dimensions of this relationship.
The work applies the definition of an actor in a broad sense. How does this concept of actor shape the analysis and framework of this book?
Our book aims to go beyond the established knowledge of the Chinese-Latin American relationship, which has been mostly focused on issues around trade, to look at the features and characteristics of the most important actors in the bilateral relationship. We became interested in this because we realized there was almost no systematic analysis on this topic. We take the concept of actors in a broad sense looking at both formal and informal institutions including the private sector, immigrants, netizens (participants in online forums), banks, etc., as well as actors in specific relationships such as between China and Brazil or China and Argentina. Many publications usually refer to China, the Chinese government, or Chinese companies in general terms, so there is little disaggregation. The idea is to understand successes, failures, and challenges in the relationship and the role played by specific actors.
The first section of the book includes a chapter which you co-authored with Nicolás Velásquez about your analysis of online discourse with a focus on anti-Chinese sentiment in Latin America. Could you explain your research and the significance of your conclusions?
We start with the common hypothesis in international relations that perceptions are central. Perceptions can be studied through public opinion surveys, but the problem with surveys is that you do not usually get the depth and detail needed. Instead we utilized the comments made by netizens in online communities. In our research, we collected about 1,300 comments on the views of Facebook users in response to news articles about China that were posted by eight leading newspapers in Latin America over a nineteen month period in 2013-2014. Overall, in the region there is a tendency to have a positive view of China, but we wanted to explore the minority who have a negative view of China. Although it is a minority, the group that does not like China could generate a greater tendency towards increasingly negative attitudes. Our study did not compare positive and negative opinions; we solely sought to understand the motivations behind the negative perceptions. We can summarize our findings into three main conclusions. First, the rise of China triggers anxiety in people because of the impact on the environment, Chinese migration into Latin America, and concern for China’s demand for natural resources. It is interesting that these fears correlate with reality; these fears are not only an impression that people have, they are supported by real trends. Additionally, when people think of China’s involvement in Latin America or in their respective countries, they see this involvement as a mirror which reflects concerns about regional and national development. They see China’s role in Latin America posing questions of sustainability, regulation, and economic growth in the region. Finally, the presence of China in Latin America shapes people’s views on the capacity and performance of the state, further showing how China’s role in Latin America leads netizens to reflect on their own countries.
What other elements of this relationship do you hope to see explored in future research?
There are a multitude of questions that are raised by the deepening of the relationship between Latin America and China. How can Latin America and the Caribbean manage Chinese influence in investment, aid, and trade in this new stage of the relationship? How can Latin America manage increasing visibility of Chinese companies and immigrant communities? How do Latin Americans construct an image of China in a context of major global transformations? How do these perceptions and understandings change or not over time? In a broader sense, when we look at the China-Latin America relationship, it is interesting to contextualize it in how China is trying to define its purpose and vision as a world-leader. What will China offer the world, and more specifically Latin America, in its rise?
This interview has been edited for brevity.