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.
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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.
This official also said he would not be surprised to see in the long term— if not in five years, then perhaps in ten— the visitation of Chinese naval ships to ports like Valparaiso or Antofagasta. The Chinese, like the Indians, are actively expanding their blue-water navy because, as Chinese strategists say, “the oceans are our lifelines” and “if commerce were cut off, the economy would plummet.” A similar logic drove the expansion of the British Royal Navy in the 19th century.
I asked Liu Yuqin whether China recognized the Monroe Doctrine—proclaimed by U.S. president James Monroe in 1823 to keep the Southern Hemisphere free of political systems “essentially different” from that of the United States. At the time, the intention was to deter South American colonization by the Spanish or other European monarchies. Referencing the imperial European powers, Monroe had said that the United States “should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” It was a long time ago, but the Monroe doctrine was one basis for the efforts of cold warriors in Washington to keep communism out of South America after the Second World War, and the doctrine remains alive for hawks in early- 21st-century Washington. Liu Yuqin, with a smile, first corrected me on the date of the proclamation—I had flubbed it at 1815. Then she said, “It’s not a question of whether we do or do not” recognize the Monroe Doctrine, because it exists as a unilateral declaration of the United States and nothing more than that. That was something of a nonanswer answer, but she added: “The U.S. has to undergo a change of mentality, as the world has changed.”
Shifting tack, she quite correctly noted that it is the Chileans who are soliciting China for an expansion of bilateral ties. This is especially true, she pointed out, in the area of language and culture. Nearly 20 of Chile’s universities, including its most prestigious ones, have in recent years established Mandarin Chinese–language programs, and the country’s number-one university, Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago, has requested the establishment of a Confucius Center for learning about Chinese culture as a joint venture with the Chinese.
Over lunch—an eight-course, two- hour affair, complete with a menu printed for the occasion—I asked the ambassador if she thought South America was part of the “West” that includes European and American political and philosophical traditions? The world today is global; such classifications are not very meaningful, the ambassador said. I tried to draw her out on whether South America’s Roman Catholic culture, still vibrant in countries like Chile, was in any sense a barrier for China. No, Liu Yuqin replied; even though most Chinese are atheists, they readily accept that belief may be powerful in other cultures.
And what about the vaunted difference between the Asian and Latin American work ethics? Even many Latinos, I said, tended to view their culture as a less hardworking, mañana one. (A Chilean lawyer in his sixties told me that Latin Americans had inherited from the Spanish nobility the idea that “working was for villains” and still retain “this curse of the Iberian tradition.”) Liu Yuqin laughed and brought up the example of Mexicans. She said, “Mexicans like to have fun— they enjoy lots of holidays, lots of days off.” They are “happy people.”
Our conversation was over. She signed my copy of the menu to mark the occasion, and I returned to my hotel for an afternoon nap.