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China increasingly connected with the LAC in everyday life



China increasingly connected with the LAC in everyday life

Several weeks ago the University of Pittsburgh Press published a book, Connecting China, Latin America and the Caribbean: Infrastructure and Everyday Life. In 13 chapters and almost 400 pages, the book opens a window on a new aspect of China's global presence and international cooperation — in this case specifically with Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) — the impact of China on everyday life.

The topic began with a research group from China and LAC holding seminars and meetings in Renmin University of China in 2016, later at the University of Pittsburgh and at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The results are relevant since they explicitly highlight the concrete effects of China's presence in LAC countries: hundreds of millions of users and consumers in LAC are utilizing and buying "made in China" products and services and, as a result, enjoying an improvement in their quality of life.

For almost a decade China has been highlighting the importance of international cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, also in the recent context of the modernization of China's cooperation and its insistence on high-quality cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The increasing presence of China in LAC countries through trade, financing, investment, and infrastructure projects is making positive contributions to the everyday life of people in LAC countries. Most of the people in LAC using Chinese products and services probably pay little heed to the high-level discussions on politics, but they do take note of their practical outcomes. People in LAC countries using Chinese products and services are forming their own perceptions of China based on their experiences. In many cases, these perceptions are not necessarily the same as those of LAC's elites.

Two factors that are prominently affecting everyday life in LAC countries are a new wave of new Chinese immigration and infrastructure projects.

In the 21st century, Chinese immigration into LAC is having massive impacts in countries such as Chile, Mexico and Peru. It is not only creating everyday life engagements with China, but also generating new perceptions, jobs, and enriching the "people-to-people" relationship between LAC and China.

Besides, Chinese infrastructure projects in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Jamaica and Peru also affect people's everyday life in these countries. The quantitative dimension is important: until 2023, more than 250 Chinese infrastructure projects have generated almost 800,000 jobs in LAC. Hundreds of millions of LAC's inhabitants are using ports, airports, highways, subways, and Wi-Fi networks that have been constructed under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Chinese companies have been realizing infrastructure projects in LAC countries, while LAC public and private institutions have also "normalized" their understanding with Chinese enterprises through these infrastructure projects and other transactions. Beyond this direct learning process, at least two aspects of Chinese infrastructure projects in LAC are important. First, Chinese infrastructure projects in LAC have diversified importantly throughout the 21st century, particularly by country and sector. As a result, Chinese infrastructure projects have increased their presence in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Peru, in addition to Brazil, still the most important recipient of Chinese infrastructure projects.

The sectorial diversification is also substantial: since the early 21st century Chinese investments were concentrated in fossil energy, more recently, they have become significant in transportation (including ports, airports, and highways); even within the energy sector, Chinese infrastructure projects have gone beyond fossil energy infrastructure. Second, Chinese infrastructure projects are importantly changing full "landscapes" in LAC: as discussed in the aforementioned book, Cosco's investment in Chancay Port in Peru and the State Grid Corporation's high-tech contribution in energy distribution in Brazil are not only affecting everyday life in the region, but generating positive effects in terms of employment and environment.

China's increasing presence in LAC is impacting the quality of everyday life of hundreds of millions of people. That means that Chinese companies have to be aware of the importance of their products and services. With an increasing proportion of LAC's population confronted with a new wave of Chinese immigration and massive Chinese infrastructure projects, Chinese companies must respond by upping their game. Most regional and bilateral LAC-China institutions, so far, are not aware of this new stage and level of the LAC-China relationship. But this issue needs to be top of the agenda to underpin long-term China-LAC relations.

The author is a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and coordinator of the university's Center for Chinese-Mexican Studies.