Building Influence: Chinese Infrastructure Investment in Latin America

As China’s economic power grows, the Asian giant is extending its reach around the globe. While the country has maintained strong economic ties with Africa since the early 2000s, it has also recently ramped up trade and investment in Latin America. Chinese president Xi Jinping has agreed to double bilateral trade with the region to $500 billion and increase investment to $250 billion over the next decade, according to various deals signed with Latin American countries in 2015. Currently, China is the largest trade partner of three of the leading economies in the region: Brazil, Chile, and Peru. These countries, along with the rest of Latin America, mostly export primary goods and natural resources; copper, iron, oil, and soybeans account for 75 percent of the region’s exports to China. In addition to trade and investment, Chinese loans to the region have also increased from $7 billion in 2012 to $29 billion in 2015.

This investment in Latin America often comes in the form of large infrastructure projects aimed at improving transportation and better connecting the region to lower costs for Chinese imports. As the U.S. is turning its back on relations and trade with Latin America, most prominently exemplified by protectionist calls to end NAFTA and thus free trade with Mexico, China has recognized an opportunity to supplant the U.S. as the extra-regional hegemon. However, this is not due to China’s goodwill and altruism towards the region, but rather an opportunity to control global trade flows through Chinese owned transportation links, and reduce costs of trade to Asia. This is an ambitious goal, and although China has made promises of increased investment and signed deals for large infrastructure projects, it is uncertain if the plans will actually come to fruition.

Considering China’s own domestic politics, it is no surprise that the country favors trade and investment with left-leaning Latin American nations. The former Kirchner administration in Argentina had several deals with China, including plans for a nuclear plant, a satellite tracking station, and a $1 billion contract to buy Chinese fighter jets and maritime patrol vessels. When current center-right president Macri came into office, he said the deals made under Kirchner would be reviewed and may face rejection, however after five months of internal review, the Argentine government successfully ratified the contracts. China has also loaned $65 billion to Venezuela since 2007, more than any other country in the region. China has a growing need for energy, and Venezuela mainly pays back the loans with oil. However, the current economic crisis in Venezuela could mean that the country may not be able to supply enough oil to China or pay back the loans, and so China announced in late 2016 that it would no longer issue new loans to Venezuela.

Chinese loans and investment are particularly appealing to Latin American countries since they rarely come with political and economic conditions or other requirements, such as implementing austerity of structural adjustment programs. Unlike loans from Western international institutions such as the IMF, Chinese loans have no (apparent) strings attached. Following the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, countries that sought relief from the IMF were required to implement structural adjustment policies that imposed austerity measures as a condition of the loans. This resulted in a “lost decade” of economic growth for the region, during which living standards and growth both plummeted. Considering this history with lenders from Western-dominated international organizations, China has found the ideal opportunity to shape Latin America for itself by investing in infrastructure, and, in return, gaining cheap access to the primary and natural resources needed for its booming population and industry sector. Two examples of the largest infrastructure projects currently proposed in Latin America are the Nicaraguan Canal and the Twin Ocean Railway.

Nicaraguan Canal

The Nicaraguan Canal, approved by the government in 2014 with a goal date of completion in 2020, is China’s alternative to the historically U.S.-controlled Panama Canal. The proposed design would stretch 178 miles between the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, running across the southern portion of the country, through Lake Nicaragua. It is estimated to cost $50 billion, and Chinese businessman Wang Jing (who owns HKND, the company responsible for developing and building the Nicaraguan Canal) is the only known investor in the project.

Photo: The Guardian


It remains unclear whether or not the Chinese government is directly involved in the planning or implementation of the project. Further complicating matters is Nicaragua’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwanese independence. Every Central American country, excluding Costa Rica, is politically aligned with Taiwan. However, China refuses formal diplomatic ties with any country that recognizes the island as a separate nation. But Taiwan has little to offer Central America, and as China’s economic and political power grows, Nicaragua and its neighbors are likely to shift diplomatic ties to the mainland.

Regardless of the Chinese government’s involvement, the current project is facing setbacks due to Wang’s reported loss of 85 percent of his personal wealth in a stock market crash, which he was using to fund the canal. Additionally, the construction of the canal has faced scrutiny and backlash for its effects on the communities in the surrounding area. It is estimated that about 30,000 people will be displaced due to construction of the canal. HKND has a compensation budget of $300-$400 million, or up to $13,300 for each displaced person. This has not stopped opposition from affected communities, however, and the last two years have seen more than 80 protests against the Nicaraguan government and HKND. These demonstrations have occasionally turned violent, and there have also been reports of arbitrary detainment of protesters. Additionally, concerns have been raised over the environmental impact of the project, including the pollution of Lake Nicaragua, the largest source of fresh water in Central America, which currently supplies water to over 80,000 Nicaraguans.  

The construction of a Nicaraguan Canal would give China access to a shipping route across the geopolitically strategic isthmus without having to pass through the Panama Canal. This would lower costs dramatically for Chinese imports, since tariffs and fees for trade through the Panama Canal have tripled over the past five years. It would also give China unprecedented access to the region, with control over how both their imports and exports are traded. Like the revenue the U.S. gained from the Panama Canal, China, or at least the overseeing company HKND, could also profit from other nations paying fees to ship goods through the canal. Nicaragua, too, would benefit economically from increased trade in the region and probable shared profits with China.

While the canal is likely to be economically advantageous for both countries, its environmental and social impact could prove insurmountable. The construction has already faced setbacks due to environmental concerns, and, amid questions about funding, the Nicaraguan canal seems increasingly unlikely, at least in the near future. There has not been much additional construction since ceremoniously breaking ground in 2014.

Twin Ocean Railway

Another ambitious project proposed by China is a transcontinental railway stretching from Brazil’s Atlantic coast to Peru’s Pacific coast. As with the Nicaraguan canal, this railway would facilitate movement of goods and greatly reduce trading costs for China. There are two possible routes for the railroad: one running directly from Brazil to Peru along a northern corridor, and one that passes through Bolivia further to the south. The latter, dubbed the Twin Ocean Railway, follows a more direct route and would cost about $13.5 billion to build, stretching over about 3,700km. The former is estimated at an untenable $60 billion, and would be over 1,000km longer, measuring 5,000km from start to finish. If the project moves forward, it is likely to be built along the more feasible Twin Ocean Railway corridor.

Photo from: Inter American Dialogue


This marks a win for Bolivia, who has been in discussions with China, Peru, and Brazil about being included along the route since 2014, following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding creating a trilateral working group on the railway that did not include Bolivia. The landlocked country of Bolivia, which has the lowest GDP per capita in South America, has been looking for a way to access the sea since Chile annexed part of its territory on the Pacific coast in a war during the 1870s. The opportunity for Bolivia to once again be connected to seaports via a major trade-based railway could provide a much-needed boost to the economy.

Like the Nicaraguan Canal, the railway project has also been met with criticisms of possible environmental degradation and threats to local communities. Some of the route passes through delicate Amazon ecosystems, and it is projected to expose up to 600 remote indigenous communities that have never previously had contact with other societies. Current Peruvian president Pedro Pablo Kuzynski has also raised concerns that the railroad will be too environmentally harmful to build.

Looking Ahead

The Nicaraguan Canal and the Twin Ocean Railway are two impressive megaprojects, which, if completed, would underscore China’s economic influence abroad, and help to further cement its role as a global economic power. However, both projects are far from completion. In addition to their environmental and community impact concerns—which could halt the projects in and of themselves—many questions have been raised about their economic feasibility and long-term success, especially given China’s track record with similar endeavors in the region.

The Twin Ocean Railway’s aims are very similar to those of the InterOceanica transcontinental highway, which also incorporated Brazil. The project began in 2006, however it was never fully completed, and the parts that were finished are not entirely structurally sound. Today, it remains a collection of unfinished, damaged, or impassable sections of highway, with no further construction or completion date in sight. Another Chinese company signed a contract with Brazil in 2011 to build a soy processing plant valued at $2 billion; however the proposed project site remains an empty field. Plans for a different railroad to be built by a Chinese company in Colombia in 2011 never materialized, along with another train project that failed in Venezuela. Given China’s history with these other infrastructure projects, it is entirely possible that the Nicaraguan Canal and the Twin Ocean Railway could end up in a similar situation – never completed or, at best, only partially built and then abandoned.

In addition to the projects that were never finished, other contracts have been pulled due to allegations of corruption between host governments and China. A rail project worth $3.7 billion slated for Mexico in 2014 was terminated after a public outcry due to evidence that the deal benefitted allies of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Additionally, a recent scandal in Bolivia revealed that the government awarded almost $500 million in no-bid contracts to a single Chinese company, raising concerns about unlawful special privileges. China’s record of not completing projects or engaging in shady contracts could sour relations with the region and foment public skepticism about foreign infrastructure investment, deterring future opportunities for China to grow its economic influence and for Latin America to develop valuable infrastructure and trade links.

Investment in large infrastructure projects in Latin America could be monumental for China’s economic influence and ever-expanding soft power, while at the same time offering sizeable benefits to many Latin American economies. However, Chinese firms must overcome their previous shortcomings and actually make progress on constructing these projects in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Transcontinental trade and transportation links are largely missing from the region, and these proposed projects would provide much needed connections not only among neighbors, but also to Asia and the rest of the world.

About Gretchen Cloutier

Gretchen is a senior with a double major in International Relations and Economics and a minor in Spanish Language and Area Studies. She is a Staff Writer for The Americas column, and spent a semester abroad in Costa Rica. Outside of the World Mind, you can find her playing ultimate frisbee or sipping coffee at the Dav on American University's campus.