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China's Latin America ambitions highlight 'silver way' strategy

Washington should brace for Beijing's Belt and Road in its own 'backyard'

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, center, visits the Panama Canal in Panama City in September.   © Reuters

China's Belt and Road Initiative reaches ever further around the globe.

First launched as the "new Silk Road" to reignite centuries-old economic relations with Central Asia, it was soon extended to include a somewhat less historically grounded "maritime Silk Road" running to Southeast Asia and across the Indian Ocean.

Later renamed "One Belt One Road," it was deemed to extend to the Atlantic coast of Europe and the continent of Africa, and began to shed its historical underpinnings.

Now no less a figure than Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that Latin America is a "natural extension" of the maritime Silk Road, and that the BRI is a model for the way in which China-Latin America cooperation can be structured.

This attempt to structure economic relations with essentially the entire world under a single BRI policy umbrella is rhetorically interesting and, in practical terms, ambitious.

In Latin America it nevertheless runs up against a differing (albeit compatible) narrative, that of "la ruta de la plata" (the "Silver Way") -- a 250-year-long successor to the original Silk Road that began in 1565 when Andres de Urdaneta discovered how to sail across the Pacific from Asia to the Americas.

This catalyzed an explosive growth in trade between China and Asia on the one hand and Spanish America and Europe on the other, via regular sailings between Manila and Acapulco; the trade route has also been called the "Manila Galleon" and "la Nao de China" ("the Ship of China").

It was during this period that globalization took shape, with all the world's major trade routes put into place. As silver from American mines primed China's money supply, global financial markets started to integrate. The early 18th-century Spanish-Mexican "milled" dollar (the piece of eight) became the world's first global currency: the U.S. dollar, yuan, yen and Hong Kong dollar are all descendants of this coin.

A present-day reincarnation of the Silver Way is already evident. The World Economic Forum reports that trade between China and Latin America, while still just a faction of the U.S. equivalent, has grown 22 times since 2000 to, according to various sources, well over $200 billion annually.

In January 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $250 billion in direct investment in Latin America in the five years to 2019. After the Lima meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group in November 2016 Xi made a point of stopping off in Spain's Canary Islands for meetings on Sino-Spanish cooperation in Latin America.

Chinese commentators and officials have recently made statements that include the historical as well as the present-day trans-Pacific trade route in a China-centric maritime Silk Road narrative. This is, from a historical point view, somewhat debatable, since the Silver Way took shape after globalization rather than before, with Spain rather than China providing the primary transportation.

Western terminus

China can construct a world view in which every country and region has a place defined by the BRI if it wishes, and this is understandable. However, just as Europe probably considers itself as something more than merely the western terminus of China's "belt," Latin America also has its own reality as a region with considerable historical, linguistic and economic coherence.

Behind this question of nomenclature lies the broader question of whether the world and the countries and regions within it are better served by a couple of large hub-and-spoke arrangements, rather than a series of interlocking, flexible mesh networks, of which the Silver Way might be one.

Names and narratives matter in international relations, as elsewhere. For example, the BRICs group (Brazil, China, India, Russia) had no reality until named; nor did the maritime Silk Road. The Silver Way, despite being a recent appellation, nevertheless has a solid historical underpinning and provides an alternative narrative to a monolithic BRI.

Whether part of the maritime Silk Road or a differentiated Silver Way, Chinese-Latin American relations are nonetheless formulated without much (if any) reference to the U.S., which did not exist during the Silver Way's heyday. For the first time in living memory, a non-American power has the potential for a substantive footprint in Latin America: if there is to be new major infrastructure in Latin America -- ports, railroads, telecoms -- is there any doubt that it will be Chinese rather than U.S. interests that this time lead the way? Chinese companies already own Margarita Island Port on the Atlantic side of the American-built Panama Canal.

Meanwhile, as the world is changed and renamed by China's outward globalization, the current U.S. administration seems more intent on dismantling existing relationships with both Asia and Latin America than in reimagining the country's position of leadership in a developing multipolar world.

The 250-year-long Silver Way was consigned to history by changing economic patterns and political developments, finally coming to an end in 1815. The Manila galleon did not survive the end of Spanish rule in Mexico; the coins however lived on. Yet history sometimes imposes itself upon the present; sometimes it provides a supporting structure for the future. The historical context for contemporary developments in Sino-Latin American relations seems to be something of which the U.S. seems largely unaware.

Should Washington end up handing Latin America to China on a silver platter, it may be one that dates from the 16th century.

Peter Gordon is co-author of "The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565-1815" (Penguin, 2017) and editor of the Asian Review of Books.

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