Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, recently accepted US$ 1 million in aid from China to acquire Chinese military logistical material. This would have been unimaginable some decades ago or even under Alvaro Uribe’s presidency. This decision appears to be a bargaining tool to increase Colombia’s leverage vis-à-vis the U.S., rather than a serious move to pursue a more independent foreign policy. Yet, the wisdom of this strategy is questionable.
Santos´ foreign policy rhetoric has been revolving around the objective of turning Colombia into a more assertive, independent and influential country in regional and international affairs. Colombia’s Foreign Minister, María Ángela Holguín, reported to Congress that the government’s foreign policy was going to focus on “geographic and thematic diversification of the foreign policy agenda in order to promote the nation’s interests.”
This change in tactics may be rooted in the failure of Uribe’s unconditional alliance with the U.S. to obtain more tangible benefits – the alliance did earn Uribe the U.S. Medal of Freedom. Santos may have reasoned that taking a different approach would gain more concessions from Washington, presumably the elusive Free Trade Agreement.
Santos’ foreign policy shift was evident even before he was sworn in as president. During the weeks prior to his possession Santos only travelled to Latin and European countries. After being in power just for a few days diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Ecuador took a 180 degree turn and his first official trip was to Brasilia rather than Washington.
The Colombian government, as many other governments around the world, understand that in a world where U.S. influence is waning, while China’s is dramatically increasing, it pays off to build new alliances. China is after all a rising power – some may even argue that it has become an economic power, albeit with less political and military clout than the U.S. – that is balancing U.S. power in various fronts.
On September 6, Santos took the unprecedented move to sign “The Accord of Free Military Aid from China to Colombia” while China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie visited Bogota. The accord stipulated Beijing’s US$ 1 million donation to acquire Chinese military logistical material. The Chinese government also invited ten Colonels and Generals to participate in training courses in China.
To place this agreement in perspective, in 2007, Uribe was considering the purchase of armored personnel vehicles (APC) and other military equipment from China but decided to spend US$ $45.6 million on 39 APC from the U.S. Since Santos was Colombia’s Defense Minister at the time it may be reasonable to claim that he advocated this position, especially if the funds were provided by the U.S. under Plan Colombia.
During his visit to the region the Chinese Defense Minister visited Mexico and Brazil but similar agreements were not signed. Nevertheless, Colombia is not the only country in the region to have accepted China’s enticing aid. In 2007 and in 2008, Bolivia received US$1.2 million and US$ 2 million respectively in military assistance from Beijing. Among China’s biggest clients in the region are the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia — recent news reports also place the FARC as a customer of Chinese-made weapons.
Some may claim that Santos strategy worked. It presumably helped modify the diplomatic terms in which Colombia-U.S. relations are conducted. Santos’ administration has been boasting that Colombia has become a partner to the U.S. This line has been corroborated by U.S. high officials. The reality, however, is that the U.S., and not Colombia, is the only party in the position to dictate the terms of this relation. It is therefore questionable whether the military aid from China had any effect in the cosmetically new framework of Colombia-U.S. relations. Not least because Beijing is neither in a position nor interested in becoming Colombia’s benefactor; that is not the way China’s foreign policy operates.
The effect of the accord on Sino-Colombian relations is not negligible. China has become more assertive in its pursuit of natural resources, markets and diplomatic influence (crucial to build consensus in international organizations). China’s objectives are clear, yet the means are murky. The effects of China’s pursuit of its interests in many African countries are testament to Beijing’s disregard for local communities, the environment and governance.
Santos’ desire to pursue a more independent foreign policy is an important step, yet a step that needs to be taken on the right path. Colombia is powerless to determine the terms of its relation with the U.S. but is in no better position to deal with China.