Expert Commentary

Foreign policy and trade: China’s relations with Africa and Latin America, 1992-2006

2013 study from Cornell examining how increased trade with China results in partner countries altering their foreign policy positions in favor of China.

When the Central American nation of Costa Rica chose to become a trading partner with China, it was rewarded with a state-of-the-art soccer stadium. The 35,000-seat, $100 million sporting venue was a visible show of appreciation for the country’s 4.5 million citizens. But was this an effective use of money for China? If so, how might that return on investment be precisely measured?

Researchers are trying to assess at a more general level the relationship between foreign policy and commercial ties in a globalized world — in particular, China’s financial influence. A 2013 study published in The Journal of Politics, “The Foreign Policy Consequences of Trade: China’s Commercial Relations with Africa and Latin America, 1992-2006,” by Gustavo Flores-Macías and Sarah E. Kreps of Cornell University, contradicts some prior work on trade and foreign policy decisions. For example, Robert Ross of Boston College concluded in 2006 that economic cooperation between two countries does not mean greater convergence of votes in the United Nations General Assembly. Further, in 2010 Scott Kastner of the University of Maryland found no relationship between China’s foreign economy and greater alignment on policy.

Flores-Macías and Kreps posit that other studies are narrowly focused on Southeast Asia and on specific cases. When broader data are examined, they assert, increased trade does mean greater agreement on policy questions. The authors measured United Nations General Assembly vote alignment by country on human rights — an issue on which China has held constant.

The study’s findings include:

  • A 1% increase in trade flow with China results in a 0.02% convergence on foreign policy issues.
  • Increased trade relations with China have a greater impact on foreign policy convergence than a given country’s relationship with the United States. If a country receives aid from the United States, that country will vote against China 3% percent more frequently. If a country trades with China, that country will vote with China 8% more frequently.
  • The greater the importance of the commercial relationship to China’s trading partner, the greater the alignment on foreign policy issues. A typical increase in trade salience (the importance of the vote to the trading partner) results in a 12% increase in convergence.
  • Despite greater alignment with China on foreign policy, public opinion polls show that developed and developing countries view China’s rise to economic power with apprehension. According to a BBC World Service poll, views on China’s influence are at the lowest level since the poll began: 42% percent of those surveyed have favorable view of China (an 8% percentage point decrease over last year) and 39% have a negative view (an 8% increase over last year).

The authors caution that such U.N. votes are an imperfect proxy for influence, as “the votes are nonbinding and therefore may not be a costly signal of a country’s preferences and allegiances.” However, they assert that the findings are strongly suggestive. “Though China has premised its economic development on the principle of noninterference in the political affairs of the partner state and touts an approach that ‘does not mix business with politics,’ our findings suggest that in practice the two are inextricably linked.”

Related research: In a 2011 report published in International Security, “After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline,” scholars from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and Ohio State University explore Chinese strategic plans in greater depth.

Tags: Asia