Chinese President Hu Jintao (
But Latin America should also be on its guard. While China may be a ravenous importer of Latin American commodities, it is also a formidable competitor. Both the public and private sector throughout the region should take immediate measures to face up to this new competition and to work toward cooperative projects with the Chinese.
Ordinary people in Latin America are only now recognizing China's importance as a global economic player. Indeed, until recently, most people took little notice of China. But its soaring growth, seen in contrast to stagnation in Latin America's economies, has awakened governments and businessmen across the region.
Comparisons between China's economy and that of Latin America are stunning. The World Bank estimates that dire poverty in China, calculated as individual income of US$1 per day, has been reduced from about 500 million people at the start of the 1980s to less than 90 million in 2000. Meanwhile, poverty rates in South America have remained relatively constant.
Economic growth rates reveal the same gap. From 1978 to last year, annual real GDP growth in China averaged 8.1 percent while growth in Mexico -- the fastest in Latin America, barely reached 1 percent a year.
Although growing, China's trade with Latin America and the Caribbean remains small, representing less than 2 percent of both exports and imports in 2002. The nature of that trading relationship differs substantially from country to country.
Brazil and Argentina have, for example, significantly increased agricultural exports to China, while Central America and Mexico have seen their imports from it increase dramatically. This is important because it illustrates the dissimilar regional impact that trade with China has on Latin America and the Carribean.
In the 10 years between 1993 and last year, China and Hong Kong's exports to Mexico rose from 1.12 percent of total Mexican imports to 5.8 percent. Since last year, China has become Mexico's most important trading partner after the US. Indeed, Mexico's trade deficit with China reached US$9 billion last year.
These changes have also had a severe impact on Mexico's trade relationship with the US. Although Latin American and Chinese exports to the US have both grown significantly since 1990, China replaced Mexico last year as the second-leading exporter to the US in value terms after Canada.
Mexico's competition in the US market from China has increased, particularly in light manufacturing -- mostly clothing and electronics. In Central America and Mexico, clothing production is vitally important -- generating 400,000 and 600,000 jobs, respectively -- and represents the heart of Central America's maquiladoras (free trade zones), which account for more than 70 percent of regional exports to the US. Losing this sector of the economy to the hyper-competitive Chinese will be a hard hit, as textile exports are often the first step on the development ladder.
If Latin America fails to deal with its new competitor, the peoples of the region will lose jobs and opportunities to develop as they should. But there are lessons to be learned and advantages to be gained from China if Latin American governments and businesses are willing to think creatively.