Chileans voted to return billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera to the presidency on Sunday in a run-off election that will likely mean strengthened trade and investment cooperation with China.
Piñera, who was president from 2010-2014, swept to a comfortable second round win that saw him earn a 54.5% share of the vote against television presenter and centre-left New Majority (Nueva Mayoria) coalition candidate Alejandro Guiller, Chile’s Electoral Service confirmed on Monday.
The victory of Piñera’s rightwing Let’s Go Chile (Chile Vamos) coalition is expected to change little in terms of Chile’s market-oriented development model or international relations, especially ties with China, which gained renewed momentum under outgoing leader Michelle Bachelet.
“There’s been near consensus on Chile’s China policy since at least the beginning of the 1990’s,” said Nicole Jenne, an international relations expert at the Universidad Católica in the capital Santiago.
In September this year, Bachelet signed Chile up as a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and in November the two countries approved the “upgrading” of a 2005 free trade agreement.
Last year, Chile and China elevated diplomatic relations to a “strategic integral partnership” – a diplomatic status enjoyed by only a handful of other countries in the region – and announced a dozen deals covering infrastructure and agriculture.
Chile and China have a long history of cooperation. In 1970, Chile became the first Latin American nation to establish diplomatic ties with China. The 2005 trade deal was the first China signed with any foreign partner. China is Chile’s largest trade partner and destination of around 30% of its exports, over 80% of which are copper products.
“When China grows, Chile grows”
Of the two second-round presidential candidates, Guiller was arguably more effusive in campaign comments about China. “Everyone in Chile agrees on the relationship with China,” he said, adding; “When China grows, Chile grows.”
Guiller visited Beijing and Shanghai in March this year to deliver a talk on technology and innovation and, somewhat controversially, reportedly also met senior Communist Party officials.
Following his election, Piñera told international journalists on Monday: “We all know China is Chile’s leading trade partner and we are going to strengthen that relationship.”
Chinese foreign affairs ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said: “We believe that the Chilean people will make greater achievements under the leadership of Piñera.”
However, during campaigning, Piñera warned of excessive Chinese influence in Latin American politics. “We Chileans want to trade with the whole world, but a strong Chinese political presence in Latin America is not good,” he told an audience at US think-tank the Wilson Centre.
Piñera also said US president Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from supra-regional trade bloc the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) presented China with a “huge opportunity”.
Jenne said the comments were “surprising” given that Chile has been a “faithful partner” to the US in its foreign policy and the promotion of free trade.
Wu Guoping, a Latin America expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said: “I don’t think the next president (Piñera) will look to change the continuity in the relationship with China because of acts undertaken during his last presidency.”
Piñera made an official visit to China in 2010, a trip he said he remembered with “great fondness.”
Fernando Reyes Matta, director of the Santiago-based Latin American Center for China Studies and a former Chilean ambassador to China, wrote in business publication Diario Financiero that Piñera should outline a long-term China-Chile plan. The plan should prioritise agroindustry, energy, 4D industries and digital connectivity.
Reyes Matta added that Piñera should take advantage of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s presence in the Southern Cone in the coming years: at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in 2018, and at the APEC summit in Santiago in 2019.
In January 2018, Santiago will host the second summit of China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations (CELAC), a 33-strong western hemispheric bloc that excludes the US and Canada.
At the first China-CELAC summit in Beijing in 2015, parties announced the China-CELAC 2015-19 cooperation plan. Chinese president Xi Jinping pledged to invest US$250 billion in Latin America and increase trade to US$500 billion over the next decade.