At this writing, two Chinese leaders are touring the Western Hemisphere. One of them is Vice President Xi Jinping, who is likely to succeed President Hu Jintao early next decade as China’s maximum leader.
Xi left this morning on a tour that will take him to Mexico, Jamaica, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, all nations eager to enhance ties with China.
Elsewhere in the region, Vice Premier Hui Liangyu is paying official visits to Argentina, Ecuador, Barbados and Bahamas from Feb. 7 to 19.
Might seem like no big deal, you say? Well, recall that President Hu visited Latin America in November, stopping in to Cuba and Peru. And while Hu was rubbing elbows with most of the major Latin presidents at the APEC summit in Lima, China’s highest ranking military officer was elsewhere in South America on tour.
That officer, Xu Caihou, is vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, which controls the People’s Liberation Army. Only President Hu outranks Xu in the military hierarchy. On his trip in November, Xu toured military installations in Venezuela, Chile and Brazil and promised increased exchanges between the two regions.
For Washington to match this pace of high-level visits, it would have to send President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and a fourth senior official, perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to Latin America within four months. I doubt will be seeing that.
The Chinese officials aren’t going empty handed either. Just take a look at the $7.3-million national stadium Chinese workers are erecting in the Bahamas, a quick boat ride from Miami. I’m sure Hui will tour the site later this week and receive multiple huzzahs from the Bahamians for this showpiece project.
Xi will be attending a big powwow of Mexican industrialists on Tuesday.
If one were looking for a specific gauge of China’s growing influence on the world stage in relation to the United States, one could do worse that just studying the Beijing-Washington-Latin America triangle.
Consider the trade numbers between China and Latin America and the Caribbean, for example.
Trade between the region and China jumped 13-fold since 1995, from $8.4 billion to $110 billion in 2007. China is now the region’s second biggest trading partner after the United States.
A concrete sign of China’s growing trade importance occurred just a couple of weeks ago.
On Jan. 12, China formally became a member of the Inter-American Development Bank, the leading hemispheric financing arm for long-term development projects. As Chinese Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong signed the forms for membership, China also threw in $350 million into bank coffers.
Now the Chinese flag flies along with the other 47 flags of the IDB’s member states.
Another sign of Chinese interest: Beijing has agreed to open branches of the China Development Bank in Mexico, Brazil and two other countries, a sign of intensified trade cooperation. My understanding is that this is a quasi-private bank.
The world has indeed grown smaller. If Latin America was once considered part of the U.S. backyard, it’s now also part of China’s backyard.