With its long history of civil war, drugs, and armed guerrilla groups, Colombia has never been an investorâ€™s paradise. Other than the United States, most other countries have stayed outâ€”until now. China recently announced an ambitious plan to construct a 136-mile railroad connecting Colombiaâ€™s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Financed by the Chinese Development Bank and operated by the state-owned China Railway Group, this $7.6 billion venture has a projected capacity of moving 40 million tons of cargo each year. Yet, thisÂ â€˜dry canalâ€™Â is unlikely to supplant the traditional Panama Canal shipping laneâ€”current conduit of 5% of global tradeâ€”as railway containers are a less effective and more costly method of transporting goods and resources.
This staggering investment in the infrastructure of the worldâ€™s fifth largest coal exporter goes beyond satiating Chinaâ€™s hunger forÂ energy resources. Chinese ambassador to Colombia, Gao Zhengyue, pointed to Colombiaâ€™s â€œstrategic positionâ€¦as a port to the rest of Latin America.â€ Beijingâ€™s efforts to upgrade relations with Bogota include an agreement to increaseÂ legislative cooperationÂ and pursuing aspirations of making Colombia anÂ unconditional friend and political ally.
For its part, Colombia is not objecting to Chinese advances. In fact, it regards Chinese investment as significant for bolstering its infrastructure and increasing its economic standing in Latin America. Oscar Zuluaga, Colombiaâ€™s finance minister, attributes the countryâ€™sÂ low level of integration with AsiaÂ for its inability to keep pace with its neighbors’ high rate of economic growth. Although China is currently Colombiaâ€™s second largest trading partner after the United Statesâ€”with bilateral trade skyrocketing from $10 million in 1980 to $5 billion in 2010â€”economic ties still lags behind Chinaâ€™s relations with other Latin American countries. Bogotaâ€™s recent appointment of Carlos Urrea, a successful textiles entrepreneur, asÂ ambassador to BeijingÂ signals a desire to more vigorously pursue closer ties with the Asian giant.
From a political standpoint, a Sino-Colombian partnership seems ideologically incongruous. Colombia, a stalwart of democracy in the region, has spent nearly fifty years fighting against the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), a Socialist armed rebel group. Integral to its defense and counterinsurgency efforts has been U.S. support. Colombia has historically been one of, if not the, strongest U.S. allies in Latin America. Despite its steadfast loyalty, politically and economically, to the U.S., the long delay in ratifying the 2006 bilateral FTA may have contributed to Colombiaâ€™s interest in diversifying its trade relations, perhaps even with the implicit goal of pressuring the U.S. for more movement on the FTA deal. While Colombian president Santos has dismissed anyÂ adverse effectsÂ that a closer relationship with China will have on Colombia-US relations, the question lingers: can one be unconditional friends of both the United States and China?