Trade and Investment

Opinion: What China’s ‘ecological civilisation’ means for Latin America

Plans to strengthen trade, economic and technological ties through Belt and Road Initiative must be responsible and sustainable, writes academic Camilo Defelipe Villa
<p>Xi Jinping visits a forest farm in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in July 2019 to learn about approaches to building “ecological civilisation”, a concept that has gained significant political traction during his presidency (Image: Xinhua / Alamy)</p>

Xi Jinping visits a forest farm in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in July 2019 to learn about approaches to building “ecological civilisation”, a concept that has gained significant political traction during his presidency (Image: Xinhua / Alamy)

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s global infrastructure development strategy and the flagship foreign policy programme of its president Xi Jinping, is one that expressly promotes international exchange, cooperation and dialogue. More than 140 countries have now signed a memorandum of understanding with China to cooperate under the BRI, including 21 from Latin America and the Caribbean, with Argentina the region’s latest member.

One of the aspirations of the BRI, according to China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment, is to “share the concept and practice of ecological civilisation”, a vision of a green future that has permeated all areas of Chinese policymaking. First appearing in government discussions in 2007, and initially national in scope, ecological civilisation now intends to convey China’s commitment to environmental issues at the global level, as a way to restore cooperation and stability to the international order.

There are also economic motivations: the construction of a global ecological civilisation requires a network of infrastructure, trade, financial integration and renewable energy technology – one that could originate in China.

Ecological civilisation’s key elements include justice, efficiency, harmony, high production levels from clean processes, sustainable resource use and good social governance

Inspired by certain Chinese philosophical principles, ecological civilisation is presented as a paradigm of national development, and one that has gained particular traction under President Xi’s leadership, having been enshrined in the Communist Party’s constitution in 2012. Its key elements include justice, efficiency, harmony and cultural development, as well as striving for high production levels from clean processes, sustainable resource use and good social governance. Efficiency, in this context, is understood as achieving a high degree of output whilst maintaining a state of ecological harmony and cultural development.

Looking towards the global scale, the discourse of ecological civilisation can be seen as aiming to influence environmental governance in international fora, in “common but differentiated responsibilities” to tackle climate change within UN negotiations, and aligning with the goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The message of this position is that each country should be able to address sustainable development issues based on its own experiences, and thus design its own environmental institutions.

So what implications does China’s push for ecological civilisation have for Latin America?

The ecological civilisation concept has the potential to influence a new paradigm for cooperation on sustainability. But for Latin America – a politically fragmented region that has long relied on high-impact extractive industries – an integration into the discourse, in a way that may enable it to benefit from Chinese technology and finance, also brings challenges.

Green technology

Among the strategies that could contribute to the push for ecological civilisation is the China Standards 2035 plan. This seeks to position China as a reference point for global standards on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and new energy, and calls for cooperation in these areas via the BRI. The initiative is also pitched as a way of using Chinese technology to assist other countries in their transition to green economies.

two people inspecting solar panels at a photovoltaic plant
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This green transition as part of a more global ecological civilisation may, therefore, also be understood as an implicit lever for Chinese economic growth and regulatory influence through international standardisation.

Rhetorically, and with a consolidated leadership role in the global renewables market, both the BRI and the concept of ecological civilisation seek to create positive impressions of the international rollout of Chinese technology, standards and environmental governance.

The promotion of ecological civilisation also relies on the message that China is an “emerging” power, which it hopes will generate favourable impressions around pro-South discourses and cooperation among countries seeking better access to technology and finance.

Ecological civilisation and Latin America

For Latin America, understanding and engaging with the ecological civilisation concept is important, and could have wide-ranging benefits. In addition to having implications for China’s technological ambitions in the global market, it could help shape the dynamics of transpacific exchange.

As Latin America increasingly engages with the BRI, speaking China’s language of ecological civilisation and sustainable development could help to curry diplomatic favour. It may also enable its governments and regional organisations to more closely coordinate policy principles and guidelines that could define the terms of trade, investment and foreign development assistance, with consequences for the energy transition.

Construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant
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To date, the notion of ecological civilisation has not appeared widely in Chinese official speeches or media regarding Latin America, nor in those of officials in Latin America, though the concept has clearly influenced efforts to “green” the BRI. Chinese officials and commentators have consistently sought to build common narratives about human harmony with the environment, shared principles, and embracing cooperation in the face of environmental challenges.

Alicia Bárcena, the influential outgoing executive secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) who has advocated closer political and economic ties with China, has made positive remarks on the ecological civilisation concept. In a 2020 opinion piece that ran in several national media across Latin America and the Caribbean, she described it as an important expression of the need to tackle the global environmental crisis and promote a green economic recovery, alongside other initiatives such as the “green deals” of the EU, South Korea and US Democrats.

Understanding and engaging with the ecological civilisation concept could help shape the dynamics of transpacific exchange

While building bilateral support for China’s foreign policy ambitions has enjoyed some success in the region, multilaterally China has sought to set the agenda for scientific and technical cooperation, policy coordination, multilateral financing, commercialisation and technology transfer through the “China-CELAC Joint Action Plan for Cooperation in Key Areas (2022-2024)”. This plan, issued following the most recent forum between China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in December 2021, opens the door for the diffusion of green technologies and standards, information and communication technologies.

Chinese companies and financiers have been a notable presence in Latin America’s expanding renewable energy market. Continued investment and cooperation in this area is targeted by the action plan, seeking to expand a network of Latin American economies using Chinese technology. However, this investment has so far been concentrated in a few countries, such as Argentina and Brazil, so it cannot be said that such a network is consolidated – or that Latin America is shaping ecological civilisation in this regard.

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There are other obstacles. For one, regional integration in Latin America is weak, and bodies such as CELAC are poorly institutionalised. Others, such as Mercosur, are divided on their visions for their relationship with China. This makes articulating common agreements and strategies, in most cases, impossible, despite the development cooperation and trade opportunities that China can offer. At a deeper level, the ecological civilisation concept does not question the precepts of modern capitalist civilisation, which has rendered Latin America as a supplier of environmentally high-impact raw material inputs into global value chains. Nor has Latin America itself given importance to the “territorial approach” to sustainable development, a concept in development literature that prioritises local and region-appropriate paradigms, and advocates discouraging “extractivism” through policies.

Under these circumstances, if Latin America hopes to strengthen its relationship with China, it must seek an engagement with the concept of ecological civilisation, all while pursuing national policies that aim to strengthen the territorial approach in order to overcome rural poverty. This implies supporting intersectoral processes of productive transformation, taking advantage of Chinese inputs and knowledge that may help increase efficiency and dissuade the continued expansion of the mining and agricultural frontiers. Latin American nations must not pass up the opportunities presented in a new, global environmental and economic context of green ambition, one that is partially shaped by China.

The challenge for Latin America is to participate in this turn towards ecological civilisation by involving business initiatives, its independent professional organisations, academia and environmental movements – both in discussions and in the implementation of a sustainable development agenda.

These efforts would help to build a China–Latin America dialogue for cooperation in which technologies that support an ecological civilisation are connected with solutions such as microfinance for entrepreneurship and the creation of agro-industrial development parks, among other possibilities.

A greater shift based on the principles of ecological civilisation assumes that Latin America should reorient its relationship with China from one based superficially on trade, to one based on environmental sustainability – and as an important region in the construction of a global environmental agenda.