Petro aligns Colombia to “One China” during Beijing state visit

Colombia's Gustavo Petro and China's Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of Beijing. Photo: Presidencia

President Gustavo Petro’s recent three-day state visit to China, and his diplomatic engagement with senior representatives of the Communist Party, have raised concerns about the potential consequences for Colombia’s long-standing alliance with the United States. This visit and the prospects of deeper involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative set the stage for a delicate balancing act that may prove too challenging for Colombia’s diplomatic integrity.

Petro’s enthusiastic embrace of the Belt and Road Initiative, with its grand ambitions of global infrastructure development, presents Colombia with significant opportunities for economic growth and engagement with the world’s second-largest economy. However, the potential cost in terms of debt and geopolitical alignment could potentially deepen Colombia’s foreign revenue dependence on a country that maintains close diplomatic and military ties with the United States’ most expansionist adversaries in Eastern Europe and Middle East: Russia and Iran.

For over two centuries, the United States and Colombia have fostered a close and strategic partnership. The economic, political, and military ties between the two nations have played a pivotal role in securing Colombia’s position as a cornerstone in maintaining regional security. In recent years, these ties have only grown stronger, with the United States remaining Colombia’s top trading partner and a key ally in counternarcotics efforts and intelligence cooperation.

Petro’s approach to international relations, especially his reluctance to condemn Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel, that has claimed the lives of more than 1,400 Israelis and citizens from across the world, has strained cordial relations with a long-standing ally. This, combined with a deepening engagement with China, now raises questions about the future of Colombia’s historic partnership with the United States.

The United States has expressed concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has been seen as a tool to potentially ensnare nations in unsustainable debt and to exert influence, particularly for Chinese companies to collect sensitive data through 5G technology. Colombia finds itself at a crossroads, and the Petro government appears willing to bend to the allure of Chinese investments in transnational infrastructure against the risk of compromising its financial independence and position as a reliable U.S. ally.

The U.S Republican Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, sent out a “spoiler alert” on Thursday through his “X” platform warning that “Petro’s new ‘Strategic Partnership’ with the Chinese Communist Party will leave Colombia hostage to their authoritarian grip thanks to their debt trap policy.”

Senator Rubio has also staunchly advocated that any visitor or foreign national who holds a travel visa and supports or defends the terrorist organization Hamas, must be expelled from the United States. The house representative has strongly criticized Petro’s failure to condemn the October 7 terror attack against Israel.

President Petro’s visit to Beijing comes amidst turbulence on the domestic front as claims of illegal campaign financing of the 2022 elections resurface ahead of Sunday’s territorial elections. While the state visit was marked by high-level meetings and ceremonial events, Petro paid tribute to the monument of Chairman Mao, and symbol of China’s communist legacy.

China, as Colombia’s second-largest trading partner with bilateral trade in goods reaching US$23 billion in 2022, is a vital economic partner. However, this partnership has drawn attention due to Colombia’s growing ambiguity in condemning international terrorism, and its lack of unequivocal support for the United States’ “ironclad” ally, Israel. During Petro’s visit to China, he took to “X” some 19 times to repost pro-Palestinian news sources and criticize Israel’s “occupation” and “genocide” of Gaza.

Petro also failed, while hosted by President Xi in the Great Hall of the People to recognize Taiwan. By adhering to the “One China” policy, which recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate government, Petro’s stance has the potential to create a diplomatic whiplash, especially as the United States maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan and supports its participation in international organizations.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry quickly responded to China-Colombia joint statement that reaffirms the People’s Republic of China’s autocratic control over the island. In the press release, Taiwan “condemns the PRC’s repeated use of meetings with heads of state to maliciously make derogatory comments about Taiwan’s sovereignty” and warns Colombia “against China’s attempts to export its hegemony through programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative”.

Closer to home, yet equally troubling, is the Colombian Government’s deafening silence towards María Corina Machado, and the avalanche of votes she received in the Venezuelan primaries. With more than 2.2 million ballots cast in favor of Machado to be the official candidate to contest the 2024 elections against Nicolás Maduro, President Petro failed to send a congratulatory note to the opposition leader. This, again, in stark contrast to other Western leaders, including an official US Government statement and personal message from U.S President Joe Biden.

As Petro navigates Colombia through uncharted diplomatic waters, the balance between reaping the economic benefits of cooperation with China and safeguarding its historic alliances with the West is now cast into uncertainty. Petro’s pro-Palestine stance, and his engagement with China will redefine Colombia’s role in a geopolitical landscape that has become as treacherous as quicksand, and potentially leave Colombians “out in the cold” with the long-term consequences of the president’s interminable diplomatic tours.