Dispatch May 2009

China’s Copper Road

Beijing is courting Santiago. Will Chileans come to like Chairman Mao more than Uncle Sam?

Fidel Castro is an “hombre,” a real man. So I was being told by Liu Yuqin, China’s ambassador to Chile, a veteran of diplomatic postings to South America, including Cuba and Ecuador. Our conversation at the Chinese embassy in Santiago began over jasmine tea in an ornate room decorated with traditional Chinese vases and a wall-length framed calligraphy scroll of a poem composed by Mao Tse-tung. The ambassador had short-cropped hair and was fashionably attired in a maroon blazer, a green and yellow checked shirt, black slacks, and soft black leather shoes. Next-door Argentina, she confessed, was a terrific place to shop for bargain leather goods and other clothing. She had learned to speak Spanish at a Beijing foreign-language institute in the early 1970s but relied on an interpreter to converse in English.

Video: Author Paul Starobin and Atlantic Deputy Managing Editor James Gibney discuss the end of American dominance

Liu Yuqin was eager to talk about China’s involvement in South America in general, and in Chile in particular. First she dispensed a short history lesson, the main point of which was that there were long-standing fraternal ties between Asians, including the Chinese, and South Americans. It might be the case, she began, that Asians and indigenous South Americans are related by blood, as scientists speculate that Asians might have crossed over to the Americas from the Bering Strait “land bridge” long ago, during a prehistoric ice age. There is a similarity in cheekbone structure, she pointed out. China’s direct ties with South America, she continued, go back to the 16th century, when a sea route for trade in silk developed between ports in South China and Mexico by way of Manila.

In the late 19th century, Chinese workers were among those brought in to dig the Panama Canal, a difficult project the French initiated but failed to complete, with many laborers dying of malaria and yellow fever. (The United States took charge of the Canal Zone early in the 20th century and finished the job under vastly improved health conditions for the workers.) After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, no country south of the United States recognized the regime until Castro’s Cuba did so in 1960. Recognition from Chile came in 1970, from Salvador Allende, who, Yuqin noted, had first visited China in 1954, when relations between America and “Red China” were extremely tense. Skipping ahead to the present, she said China was eager to deepen its ties with Chile, not just on the basis of copper but on cultural initiatives like Chinese-language programs.

I asked if Chileans should be concerned about the Chinese succeeding the Spanish and the Americans as the new imperialists of South America. “It’s not like China comes in to ransack this country of its raw materials—China pays for these raw materials,” she noted evenly. When I pointed out that a union of Chilean copper workers had taken a stand against China’s bid to become an owner of the Gaby mine, she said, “As in all families, brothers can have an argument.” China has a policy of “noninterference” in all countries and believes in the motto “Win together.” China, she insisted, is preoccupied with its own internal development: China’s goal is “peaceful development, never hegemony. We don’t have as much time as your country does to intervene in the affairs of others.” I had asked about the sensibilities of the Chileans, but she was responding to me as an American.

And the truth, not surprisingly, is that Beijing is hoping to extend its ties with Chile to the military domain. So far, that part of the relationship is a modest one, involving Mandarin-language training for Chilean military personnel in Santiago. The next step is a broader initiative in language and cultural training for the Chilean military, who would go to China itself for their courses. A natural step beyond that would be an officer exchange program, such as Chile and the United States long had. Beyond that might be Chilean purchases of routine military gear, such as goggles, as well as weapons, from the Chinese. “The Chileans have told us that the Chinese are interested in a much more robust military-to-military relationship,” a knowledgeable U.S. official told me.

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Paul Starobin is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. Adapted from AFTER AMERICA: Narratives for the Next Global Age by Paul Starobin, with permission of Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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