Should Colombia join China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

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Bridge construction in Canton, China. Photo: Pstrey/Creative Commons

Colombia is often thought of as one of the most reliable allies of the United States in Latin America. It receives military, humanitarian, economic, and democracy aid yearly, and enjoys a special relationship as the only NATO partner in Latin America and a Major Non-NATO Ally to the US. Yet, Beijing has moved in to bring Colombia closer to its sphere of influence, most notably with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

To recap, the Belt and Road Initiative is a major infrastructure-investment program set up by China to expand its economic, political, and strategic influence abroad. Through the BRI, China pours billions of dollars in investment and loans to construct infrastructure projects throughout the world. The infrastructure is built mostly by Chinese companies and workers, with most relating to public works and energy projects, including roads, bridges, highways, railroads, dams, canals, and airports.

Currently, 146 countries are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and more are lining up to join every year. Latin America has been the slowest region at joining, given its historic and strategic ties to the United States. Still, some Latin American nations have joined, including Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and, most recently, Argentina and Nicaragua.

The May 29 presidential election could see a hard-left candidate occupy Casa de Nariño, bringing the country closer to China’s orbit. The electoral outcome would present a rare opportunity for China to solidify its influence in Colombia and perhaps bring it into the BRI fold.

The BRI would have both positive and negative ramifications for Colombia.

Historically, Colombia has relied on the United States for assistance, which has manifested mostly in security assistance like Plan Colombia and the War on Drugs. US-led security initiatives have brought mixed results, and Colombians have expressed dissatisfaction with this kind of blatant security cooperation.

For instance, controversial former President Álvaro Uribe, who pioneered Plan Colombia against the guerrillas and drug cartels, is publicly credited, as a Boyacense passer-by recently told me, with “selling the country to the United States”.

There is, therefore, a strong anti-U.S and anti-imperialist sentiment in Colombia, as many Colombians are tired of blatant U.S-Colombia security initiatives that are perceived as bringing more death and destruction to a country with a long history of civil conflict. China can take advantage of this grievance.

The BRI presents an opportunity for Colombia to maintain its global presence as a strong middle power in Latin America without having to rely exclusively on U.S defence assistance or hard-security policies. Instead, the BRI could, as it has throughout Latin America and the rest of the Global South, push forth a turn towards economic and financial policy cooperation.

As described by Professor Chris Blattman from the University of Chicago in a recent interview, Colombia has experienced strong democratic and security stability since the signing of the 2016 peace deals. What has been lacking, however, has been economic development. Colombia remains stuck in the middle-income trap despite many of its neighbours like Panama and Brazil continually growing economically and becoming large centres for external investment and economic activity. The BRI could help with this transition.

Currently, Colombia has one of the smallest proportions of paved roads, highways, and railroads in the Americas, desperately needing infrastructure investment and development to connect its two coasts, the Andean highlands, and the Amazonian South.

According to a U.S Trade Representative study, Colombia ranks in the bottom third of countries for transportation infrastructure, making both internal and global commerce extremely difficult. Departments and regions are hardly connected to one another in any capacity.

Further infrastructure development could help unleash Colombian commerce and help connect Colombians of all parts to increase economic connectivity and tourism. The same could be said of internet and telecommunications infrastructure, which China has also supported throughout the Global South.

Some steps have already been taken towards closer China-Colombia economic cooperation. In 2012, Colombia and China signed a free-trade agreement, which is still in place. In 2019, the two countries signed a new FTA on agricultural produce, including exporting bananas and avocados to Chinese markets.

China has already put forward billions of dollars in infrastructure investment to Colombia. Also in 2019, China agreed to finance the Bogotá metro line, as well as electric bus lines in Calí and Medellín.

Since 2000, China has climbed from Colombia’s 37th trading partner to its second most important as of 2021. Colombia now imports from China about twenty times as much as it did twenty years ago.

Colombia also received about 11.5 million Sinovac vaccines against COVID-19, helping it get through the difficult first months of the pandemic.

China and Colombia signed an extradition treaty in 2019, during the tenure of pro-US President Iván Duque. A new, much larger Embassy of China in Colombia is also under construction in Bogotá, signaling the new tide coming to the region.

Yet, Colombians should remain wary of the BRI and of fully abandoning U.S security cooperation, and instead opt for an approach more reflective of our multipolar context.

The BRI comes with geopolitical strings attached, including tacit support for China’s various strategic efforts in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Many of BRI’s latest signatories have stepped back their recognition of independent Taiwan, instead referring to it as Chinese territory or simply referring to it as a domestic political issue.

Colombian companies do not necessarily stand to benefit from the investment, as the construction and development are most often initiated by Chinese companies contracting Chinese workers.

In some cases, the given loans, due to the countries’ inability to repay, have also meant a Chinese takeover of territory, like the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and the Neuquén Base in Argentine Patagonia.

In Ethiopia, the new African Union headquarters, financed and built by China, were also bugged to provide Chinese intelligence with reliable information on government figures and political activities.

Some of the BRI projects have been unsuccessful due to financial and logistical difficulties or a misunderstanding of local contexts. Such is the case for Montenegro, where the BRI helped build a $1 billion, unfinished “road to nowhere”.

Therefore, while the BRI presents an opportunity for Colombia, it also raises important concerns.

Colombia’s slow-but-steady turn towards China should be a warning sign for the United States and its allies, signaling that a security-focused approach has not been entirely productive nor popular.

There is merit in reprioritizing economic and soft power initiatives. If the U.S and its allies want to maintain their influence within the hemisphere, some introspection is in order, and efforts should be made to improve the living conditions of locals outside peace and security only.

Build Back Better World, the American competitor to the BRI, while a step in the right direction, has not been given proper momentum, and further steps should be taken to maintain positive relations with the hemisphere. Independently, it will be up to Colombians to determine the direction these geopolitical shock waves.

Joseph Bouchard is a Canadian geopolitical analyst focusing on the Americas.