China and Latin America: Closer Cooperation, But Can’t It Also Be Cleaner?

Latin America and China are getting closer. It is important to reflect on this bilateral framework especially as Latin American countries hold the CELAC Summit in San Jose, Costa Rica in a few days. Earlier in January, governments from our region had met in Beijing with the Chinese President and formalised a south-south cooperation forum. Will their priorities lead to cleaner development? This piece makes the case that clean energy, cities and water need to be part of this new cooperation forum in order to deliver real benefits for the almost 2 billion citizens living in China and Latin America.

Latin America in 2015 is more democratic and urbanized than ever. Over the coming decade our region must continue to build on hard-won gains – an expanded middle class, a decrease in extreme poverty, a stabilized political landscape – in order to deliver prosperity to a great majority of Latin Americans.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) will host its third Summit on 26th - 29th of January 2015. The meeting will take place in Pedregal, Costa Rica. So it is important to raise questions about CELAC priorities in the fields of human development and sustainability.

Latin American countries continue facing critical choices in order to tackle existing fundamental impasses. Consider urbanization: At 80%, Latin America has the world´s highest percentage of people living in cities, but many of these cities are currently unfit for that purpose. So too for issues such as public transportation, or even access to clean water – Latin America needs to reach a new domestic consensus over private and public investments in infrastructure. What are the best energy choices to make? What kind of cities should be built? How will natural resources be utilized over time?

Enter China. Economic and political interaction with China will be a defining force in Latin America this decade, and arguably for the rest of the century. Looking for common ground between the Chinese and ourselves is imperative for our region to deliver innovative development solutions to an expanding population with higher expectations. Whether they live in Lima or Tianjin, citizens share similar aspirations: to live in cities where air and water quality are not potentially lethal.

Miscalculated urbanization will lead to hazardous environmental pollution, traffic jams and urban crowding, water scarcity, and even the possibility of violence. Ignoring these realities, both the Chinese and Latin American regions would sooner or later be faced with unsustainable street politics. Ultimately, if new development solutions can emerge from new politics of cooperation, then the scale of the impact could be unprecedented and life-changing for hundreds of millions of citizens.

A New Forum for Cooperation with China

The First Ministerial Meeting of the Forum of China and CELAC took place in Beijing from 8-9 January 2015. As Costa Rica currently holds CELAC Presidency pro-tempore, the Forum was co-chaired by the Chinese and Costa Rican Ministers of Foreign Affairs. In addition to the Ministerial meeting, Chinese President Mr Xi Jinping hosted a meeting with the Heads of States of the “CELAC Quartet” – the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

The Forum ended with China and CELAC countries agreeing to the following:

A Five-Year Cooperation Plan (2015-2019), with specific measures for cooperation on politics, security, trade, investment, finance, infrastructure, energy, resources, industry, agriculture, science, and people-to-people exchange.

The Beijing Declaration, which summarizes political consensus, sets the direction for the forum, and defines cooperation guidelines.

Regulations on the Forum, which set the rules of the forum, define three regular dialogues between China and the CELAC bloc, and provide a system to guarantee the implementation of political consensus and plans.

Clarity of Purpose

President Xi’s narrative during the Forum built on “giving the world a positive signal about deepening cooperation between China and Latin America”, and the notion that “one plus one equals more than two”. Costa Rican President Mr. Luis Guillermo Solís also framed his comments on a positive tone, proposing that the China-CELAC Forum will build a “communication bridge” for both.

The narrative is no doubt appealing, and yet the reality on the ground calls for prudence. The specific projects undertaken by this Forum will determined whether Chinese and Latin American citizens benefit from better development and higher standards of living – or not.

As the world´s second largest economy, China is resource-hungry. Billions of dollars from China are already pouring into Latin America in exchange for Venezuelan oil, Argentinean and Brazilian soybeans, and Chilean and Peruvian copper. China has become the region’s second largest trading partner and its third largest investment source.

However, Latin America is not growing as fast as a few years ago, and the gravitas of this first Forum was certainly the Chinese pledge to invest $250 billion in CELAC countries over the next 10 years. This new attention from China must be met with clarity of purpose.

Our Latin American region will benefit to the extent that governments and private sector (e.g., exporters, importers, tourism services) can resist the “anything goes” logic that often accompanies quick decisions and short-term outcomes. Because two-way trade between China and Latin America is likely to reach $500 billion in 10 years, each region must internally define its own long-term strategies for cities, energy, infrastructure, and transport to best achieve domestic objectives. The point is: China knows what it wants from Latin America – resources, influence, and allies – but do we know what we want from China?

Three Ideas for Cleaner Cooperation

Several key urbanization issues are absent from this new platform’s agreement. Below we propose three ideas for cleaner cooperation that should be explicitly integrated:

Clean energy:

Because clean energy has a significant potential across Latin America, the regions is considered “one of the great frontiers for clean energy investment”. From 2006 to 2013 the region attracted a cumulative $132 billion, $93.4 billion of which went to build new projects. China will soon account for almost 40% of the global expansion of renewable energy capacity deployment. Between 2003 and 2011 Chinese renewable electricity generation increased almost 12%, while the global trend was up just 5%. The China-CELAC Forum should accelerate the pace of this energy transition rather than be a barrier. It would be a serious mistake to anchor this modernization platform on the polluting fossil fuels of the past.

Cities and transport:

Chinese cities will gain an estimated 350 million residents over the next 20 years. The Chinese government already faces public outcry because of air pollution, which is transitioning into environmental protests. Demonstrations have grown in number on average 29% every year, a number that rose to 120% from 2010 to 2011. Latin America also faces its own urbanization challenges. Moreover, China is developing some of the world’s most advanced rail systems – China’s Railway Corporation, the state monopoly, boosted its investment budget to $128 billion in 2014. The China-CELAC Forum could provide a collaborative platform around long-term urban planning, low-carbon cities, and clean transportation, so why not include joint design in the cooperation framework?


China contains 21% of the world’s population, but only 7% of the world’s freshwater supplies. A recent article in the international press stated that “water problems in China are even worse than you think”, and this problem could worsen in the future. The China-CELAC Forum should include the water dimension as an opportunity for southern innovation around a problem that will directly impact governments, businesses, and people around the world.It would also raise awareness of the importance of the water-food-energy nexus.


Some of these agreements already exist between China and the US, so it is time for Latin America to wake up and ask for what it needs. The new realities of this century – cooperation frameworks on clean energy, low-carbon cities, transportation, and water protection – are as critical as traditional ideas such as trade expansion and investment. The China-CELAC Forum will be mutually beneficial only if that cooperation increases the quality of life for the nearly 1.96 billion citizens living in China and Latin America.

Follow us on Twitter @MonicaArayaTica @NivelaOrg

An adapted version of this article was published on the new website Diálogo Chino - a platform for dialogue on China, Latin America and Sustainability. Follow them at @DialogoChino

The official website of the CELAC Summit 2015 in Costa Rica is

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