Two Books on China and Latin America
Dragonomics: How Latin America Is Maximizing (or Missing Out on) China’s International Development Strategy
By Carol Wise
Yale University Press, 2020, 328 pp
Two books explore the burgeoning ties between China and Latin America. Wise is largely optimistic about China’s commercial presence in the region, whereas Stallings describes a relationship of growing, but not necessarily malign, dependency. Wise counters the claim, sometimes voiced by the Trump administration, that exploitative Chinese trade and investment practices endanger Latin American economies. She strenuously argues that closer commercial ties can benefit both China and Latin American countries. China has turned to resource-rich Latin America not because it harbors hegemonic ambitions but because it is heavily dependent on imported raw materials and foodstuffs. China’s rise has improved the international economic environment for many Latin American countries and widened their room for maneuver. Positive outcomes, however, are not guaranteed. Wise convincingly demonstrates that Latin American countries must make smart domestic choices to best take advantage of their ties with China. The larger economies (Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico) have mostly failed to build and maintain the governing institutions that could profitably channel Chinese commercial interests. In a particularly stimulating chapter, Wise points to three smaller, smarter states—Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru—that have benefited handsomely from their relations with China. Each of those countries boasts relatively strong regulatory oversight, an attractive investment climate, and sophisticated export-promotion policies.
Stallings’s little gem of a monograph looks at China’s recent encroachments into Latin America through the lens of dependency theory, which has traditionally been applied to understanding U.S.–Latin American relations. More powerful countries make weaker ones dependent by exerting three kinds of influence: market relations (trade, investment, and lending); linkages (among government officials, business executives, technocrats, and civil society); and diplomatic leverage (the power to advance interests). Traditionally, the United States has built its regional hegemony through command of all three arenas. In assessing China’s relations with the region, Stallings divides Latin American countries into two categories: left-leaning ones, where China has a reasonable degree of diplomatic leverage but low levels of market relations and interpersonal linkages, and ones with higher standards of governance and transparency, such as Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Mexico, where China has less diplomatic leverage but growing commercial ties and interpersonal connections. China is making inroads into Latin America but generally lacks the density of economic and political ties that the United States enjoys. Stallings’s innovative study will stimulate a fresh debate about whether dependency theory remains relevant to understanding Latin American development in the twenty-first century.