Lessons from Chinese diplomacy in forums in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean

Xi Jinping at a CELAC summit

2024 is a crucial year for China and the Global South. China continues to make an active diplomatic effort to gain influence in the developing world with a strong presence in the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NOAL) and the Third Southern Summit of the Group of 77 plus Chinain Kampala, Uganda, at the beginning of the year. These meetings will boost preparations for the ninth China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC) and the fifth summit of the China-Latin America and the Caribbean Forum (China-CELAC) in mid-2024.

China positions itself as a champion of the Global South. The foreign policy of Beijing It is guided by the doctrine that “great powers are the key, China’s periphery the priority, developing countries the base, and multilateral platforms the stage.”

China is Africa’s largest trading partner and Latin America’s second largest. Its portfolio of commitments includes market access, infrastructure, energy, strategic minerals, digital infrastructure, space, security and exchanges between parties. Many states in the Global South vote alongside China in multilateral organizations.

When the participation of civil society, courts and other independent institutions is strong, then governments and their Chinese partners can be more accountable.

The former president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, greets the Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing in 2023 (Reuters)
The former president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, greets the Chinese leader Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing in 2023 (Reuters) (ARGENTINE PRESIDENCY/)

While some African, Latin American and Caribbean countries have seen positive results from their engagements with China, others such as Angola, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Ethiopia and Zambia They have faced mounting debts. Other disadvantages include environmental damage, human rights violations (particularly in extractive industries), weakening due diligence and oversight, corruption, and elite capture.

In recent years, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Zambia, Ethiopia and Kenya have sought debt relief from China with mixed success. The Environmental risks of large Chinese investments are also a key concern for civil society in the Global South. A study by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center found that 76% of recorded allegations of abuse linked to Chinese companies in the Global South between 2013 and 2020 occurred in the mining, construction, fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors. Africa recorded the second highest number of accusations.

While some Latin American, Caribbean and African countries have faced challenges over unconstitutional changes in government, China’s approach has been strengthen incumbent governments regardless of how they came to power. It does not raise human rights concerns by claiming “non-interference.” Therefore, China’s preferred engagement model endears it to authoritarians and gives them options they would not otherwise have. Countries that are heavily sanctioned or isolated from the international system (such as Zimbabwe and Bolivia) can count on China’s support as “all-weather friends.”

Countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa have learned valuable lessons about the importance of due diligence on these commitments over the years. When the participation of civil society, courts and other independent institutions is strong, then governments and their Chinese partners can be more accountable.

Institutional framework: a mirror image with some differences

FOCAC and China-CELAC are part of a system of multilateral institutions that China built over the last two decades (REUTERS/Cooper Inveen/File Photo)
FOCAC and China-CELAC are part of a system of multilateral institutions that China built over the last two decades (REUTERS/Cooper Inveen/File Photo) (COOPER INVEEN/)

FOCAC and China-CELAC They are part of a system of multilateral institutions that China has built over the past two decades in an effort to build an alternative international architecture alongside the current global order. FOCAC, China-CELAC and similar forums – such as the China Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) – are in many ways mirror images of each other, with similar organizational structures, goals and objectives consistent with China’s ideological values.

FOCAC was created in October 2000 in Beijing, just before China joined the World Trade Organization. It is the oldest of China’s regional forums. The forum took off in 2006, when Beijing announced a China-Africa Development Fund of USD 5 billion and offered interest-free loans and increased help. Since then, it has evolved into a comprehensive mechanism covering a range of issues.

The China-CELAC forum, modeled after FOCAC, was first announced in 2014, during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Brazil. This was just a year after Xi officially launched China’s flagship strategy. “One belt, one route” (coined as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for international audiences). Before the forum, China’s engagement with CELAC countries was largely bilateral. The first China-CELAC ministerial meeting was held in Beijing in 2015.

In total, China’s lending in the Global South between 2008 and 2021 accounted for 83% of the World Bank’s loan portfolio during the same period.

Since then, 22 of the 33 CELAC countries have joined the BRI. In Africa, the BRI has almost universal membership (53 countries), with Eswatini being the only exception (and the only African country that still recognizes Taiwan). In CELAC, 13 countries recognize Taipei. China is trying to draw them into its orbit, mainly through economic incentives. Since 2017, targeted BRI investments have helped turn things around in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

China’s effort to create alternative international structures has gained momentum. Between 2000 and 2022, African countries agreed to 170 billion dollars in Chinese loans through an increasingly complex network of Chinese-created institutions, such as the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Fund. The CELAC countries, for their part, accessed 130 billion dollars. In total, China’s lending in the Global South between 2008 and 2021 accounted for 83% of the World Bank’s loan portfolio during the same period. In essence, Beijing’s plethora of new multilateral institutions offer alternatives, but on less favorable terms than the World Bank, which is why some countries in the Global South see China as a lender of last resort.

Almost identical structures

FOCAC and the China-CELAC Forum meet every three years at the level of heads of state and publish three-year joint action plans to guide their inter-summit relations. As of 2024, China had published eight joint action plans for Africa and two for CELAC. China also publishes regular national strategies in both regions, such as China-Africa white papers of 2006, 2015 and 2021, and other similar ones for the CELAC countries in 2008 and 2016.

FOCAC meetings among senior officials usually take place between summits, often on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the African Union (AU) and other forums. These structures are replicated on the China-CELAC side, but since CELAC was established three years before China-CELAC, the various parties simply inserted some forum structures into the existing CELAC bodies. For example, in addition to the Ministerial Conference, there are meetings between the Chinese foreign minister and the CELAC “Quartet”: four members who perform specific leadership roles in CELAC. The FOCAC Senior Officials Meeting corresponds to the China-CELAC National Coordinators Meeting since these roles already existed in CELAC. Some China-CELAC meetings also take place during the United Nations General Assembly.

Both groups have numerous sub-forums (9 for FOCAC and 10 for China-CELAC), creating spaces for China to build bridges, cultivate influence and promote its governance model. They also help expand your partnerships. For example, China’s military ties with CELAC received a boost after the establishment of the China-Latin America High-Level Defense Forum in 2015, when China-CELAC was inaugurated. Since then, China has provided more professional military training places for Latin American and Caribbean officers than the United Statesby a factor of five to one in some years.

China’s military education quotas in Africa are also of unparalleled scale. These are obtained from the training places offered at each summit (approximately 100,000 academic scholarships, media scholarships and triennial invitations to African countries through FOCAC before the pandemic and around 50,000 for CELAC). Both regions send about the same number of students to China annually (60,000-70,000), including about 6,000 government officials each.

Some lessons from each region

The Las Bambas copper mine in Peru, operated by the Chinese firm MMG, the largest foreign investment in the country to date (REUTERS/Sebastián Castaneda)
The Las Bambas copper mine in Peru, operated by the Chinese firm MMG, the largest foreign investment in the country to date (REUTERS/Sebastián Castaneda) (SEBASTIAN CASTANEDA/)

Both regions host the same Chinese institutional actors, from state-owned enterprises, Chinese political banks, ministries of public security and national defense, to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), security companies, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials and Institutes Confucius.

Many CELAC countries are middle-income economies, which presumably gives them greater leverage to secure optimal agreements. Chile, Costa Rica and Peru achieved Free Trade Areas (FTA) with China, while Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama are actively negotiating theirs. Mauritius is the only African country that has an FTA with China, although Kenya has also expressed interest.

Due to the overlap between CELAC and the China-CELAC Forum, Latin American and Caribbean officials have arguably been more successful in negotiations as a bloc. The CELAC National Coordinators Meeting helps them harmonize positions before the China-CELAC meetings. The African side does not have a comparable mechanism, although in recent years African professionals have offered many proposals for AU members to design a common strategy towards China.

Both regions have acquired experience in defense and citizen participation. One example is the Latin American non-governmental (NGO) coalition, the Collective on Chinese Financing and Investment, Human Rights and the Environment (CICDHA). In February 2023, it submitted a report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, based on field studies of major Chinese companies that did not comply with labor, environmental and human rights standards local in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

Copper strip The Bambas in Peru, operated by the Chinese firm MMG, the largest foreign investment in the country to date, is an example of this. The Muqui network, a coalition of NGOs representing more than 30 environmental and social justice organizations, documented forced relocations of communities near the mine and also alleged that MMG “modified the environmental impact study” and did not conduct public consultations before the project.

Mindful of the potential risks to its reputation, China has acknowledged such claims and promised to establish a complaints mechanism in line with guidelines for preventing environmental risks set out by Xi Jinping in 2021 in response to growing public pressure the BRI faces over environmental, corruption and other concerns.

Much of the pressure comes from NGOs in the Global South with access to UN institutions, which China seeks to influence. Strategic litigation has become a favorite tool in Africa, along with media investigations and policy advocacy. Litigators have worked on sensitive cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mozambique, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, among others. In Guinea, NGOs involved in monitoring the bauxite industry have partnered with the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims (CLAPV), China’s first NGO environmental law clinic with extensive experience in Chinese litigation. He has trained several African NGOs on how they can apply Chinese legal tools to enforce regulations by Chinese companies operating in their countries.

This innovation is based on the constant growth of independent Chinese knowledge networks that have developed in Latin America, Africa and Asia in recent years. The oldest of these, the Chinese in Africa and Africans in China Research Network, has an active membership of 1,200 opinion leaders from Africa and China who conduct research, share connections and lessons learned. In 2023, African, Latin American and Caribbean researchers, academics and practitioners formed the Africa-Americas Forum on China, the first inter-regional platform of its kind to compare and contrast China’s involvement in the AU and CELAC regions, organize their own conferences and transfer lessons and best practices.

Expansion of coordination between Africa and Latin America

Independent voices from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean are calling for a greater coordination to improve attention to citizen priorities before the upcoming FOCAC and China-CELAC summits. Specifically:

-The AU should convene a coordination meeting of senior officials similar to the CELAC National Coordinators Meeting to help harmonize positions before the FOCAC.

-Governments should consult NGOs that already collaborate and draw interregional lessons. Government representatives should participate in independent civil society forums that will be held before and after the summits.

-NGO actors from both regions should intensify their collaboration and facilitate the exchange of experiences to help shape policy priorities.

-The AU and CELAC should engage more strategically to take lessons learned and develop a global and holistic perspective of Chinese engagement.

By convening meetings between senior officials, systematically extracting best practices, consulting with civil society professionals and conveying those lessons to their foreign ministers, the AU and CELAC can be more effective in promoting the interests of their respective citizens. China frequently advocates South-South cooperation. By working together, AU and CELAC stakeholders would participate in a South-South cooperation at the highest levelmaximizing its relationship with China across the Pacific while improving the lives of its citizens across the Atlantic.

Note originally published in africacenter.org

Source-www.infobae.com