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Monday, September 5, 2011

China's double-edged trade with Latin America

China has in recent years become Brazil's largest trading partner, overtaking the United States, and in 2010 was the largest investor in the South American nation, pumping in some $30 billion.

For China, Brazil is an important source of raw materials -- oil, iron ore and soybeans account for 80 percent of Chinese imports and 90 percent of its investments in the largest Latin American economy.

Soy from Argentina, copper from Chile, iron ore from Brazil: China's seemingly insatiable appetite for Latin America's raw materials is credited with fueling blistering economic growth for both.

China's rise in bilateral trade with Latin America is the greatest of any region in the world -- an astonishing 18-fold increase over the past decade, thanks mostly exports of raw materials from the region.

But experts are warning the increasingly closely tethered economic ties to China may not be entirely to Latin America's benefit, and may even hamper its long-term aspirations of becoming a major exporter of manufactured goods.

Part of the reason for this is China's insistence on buying almost exclusively unprocessed raw materials from the region while refusing to purchase more sophisticated "value added" exports.

"It's essentially one commodity per country and this is quite remarkable," said Mauricio Cardenas, director of the Latin America program for the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.

There are also risks, like one flagged recently by the Nomura economic analysis firm, which raised the concern in a recent statement that the economic boom in countries like Brazil stems from overdependence on its exports to China.

"We think Brazil's much vaunted 'new middle class' is a direct result of Chinese commodity demand," the company wrote recently in its analysis.

Another economist who specializes in economies of the region put it even more bluntly, pointing out that when it comes to export of value-added goods from Latin America, China must be viewed more as a fierce competitor than likely market.

"I don't think that with China, India, and the rest of Asia in the game, the region stands any chance of becoming a major exporter of manufacturing goods," said Mauricio Mesquita, senior economist at the Inter American Development Bank (IADB)

"I think this window is closed with a very few exceptions," he said.

And experts raise another concern -- that the seemingly bountiful resources that Latin America has been exporting to the Asian behemoth could start running out by mid-decade.


But the export of manufactured products, which most economists say is the cornerstone of healthy economic development for emerging countries, is beginning to stagnate.

Companies in the region are themselves to blame in part for making the mistake of many other developed and industrializing economies in sending many of its manufacturing jobs in China, as Brazil did in the case of giant aircraft manufacturer Embraer.

Over the years, the manufacturing sector in Brazil has declined by three percent as a share of the country's gross national product (GNP) while other countries in the region, such as Colombia, have seen a two percent drop.

Experts said it is unlikely that there will be a reversal in that trendline anytime soon.

"The long-term trend for Brazilian employment is not manufacturing. The only place is services," said Gary Hufbauer of the Washington-based Peterson Institute for International Economics.

A report by Mauricio Cardenas his colleague Adriana Kluger for Brookings reached the same conclusion.

"The region has to be prepared to find alternative sources of trade and growth," Cardenas and Kluger wrote.

The United States has been watching China's growing economic prowess in Latin America with some concern, especially after China last year supplanted the United States as the top trading partner with several South American nations, and vies to be a major investor in the region.

"Its activities in Latin America are increasing slowly over time. They start from a very low base but they have been progressively growing in recent years," said David Helvey, an Asia expert at the Pentagon said at a US congressional hearing in April.

"I think most of their activities in Latin America (are) motivated primarily by commercial and economic interests, where they are seeking to expand access to trade for resources and secure access to markets" for their manufactured goods," he said.

US exports to Latin America have dropped from 55 percent of the region's total imports in 2000 to 32 percent of the region's imports in 2009, according to UN figures, which found that the share of US investment in the region also has dropped significantly.

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