Though its significance may now seem passé, in September Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to San José to meet with his Costa Rican counterpart to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Chinese-Costa Rican relations. For those to whom this will seem odd, one must remember that throughout most of the 20th century, the vast majority of Latin American states recognized the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the rightful representative of the Chinese people rather than the People’s Republic of China (Beijing)—as 11 states still do.
Though Chinese plans to build a second transoceanic canal across Nicaragua have floundered for the time being, Beijing’s interest in Central America has done anything but. A strategic passage to its lucrative interests in the Americas, not to mention the quickest, cheapest path to the US’ east coast, still the second-largest market for the fruits of its many labors, Central America’s importance to global Chinese designs means that Costa Rica’s economic, diplomatic, and political prominence among them will only blossom all the more.
At the heart of Beijing’s policy toward Costa Rica and Central America is what political scientists are calling the “Beijing Consensus,” a moniker to replace the “Washington Consensus” that for decades dominated the political economy of states south of the Rio Grande. Bolstered by the Chicago school of economics, as it was both renowned and reviled by Latin American economists and central bankers since the 1970s, the Washington Consensus bestowed upon Latin American economies a strict diet of privatization, property rights, fiscal discipline, deregulation, tax reform, restructured public and social expenditure, liberalized interest rates, trade, FDI, and competitive exchange rates.
Compared to this regime, the Beijing Consensus, though fittingly vague, will strike many as a tad more flexible—innovation, the pursuit of dynamic goals, and self-determination. Mumbo-jumbo to many, in reality these goals boil down to three specific hard-headed policies: securing mining, energy, and agricultural resources abroad to sustain domestic economic growth; opening new markets for Chinese goods; and gaining support in international forums for Chinese policies, including but not limited to the recognition of Beijing over Taipei. Though the former may seem obvious and the latter redundant, one must not forget that in many regards Central America, thick in the bloodied backyard of Uncle Sam, represents a final diplomatic frontier of sorts for Beijing. This is one of the reasons it recently ponied up a USD130-million aid package and scooped up USD300 million in Costa Rican bonds.
Speaking in September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang stressed what he saw as the biggest building blocks to cementing Costa Rican-Chinese economic, cultural, and commercial ties. Fittingly for a rich country with poor infrastructure, he stressed China’s ambitions of harnessing its natural “advantages” in such matters to help develop Costa Rican ports, rail, and highways as much as possible. Second, Wang stressed, China wants to deepen its bilateral trade with Costa Rica by inviting the latter to participate in the forthcoming China International Import Expo. Third, it wishes to further Costa Rican advances in green, low-carbon, and sustainable energy development by leveraging its expertise in solar, wind, and other clean energy industrial chains.
To be sure, none of this means that San José’s relationship with Washington, typically its most important partner, has soured in the least. As if to preempt and up the Chinese security offer, when Costa Rican President Solís traveled to Washington in August 2016 with US Ambassador S. Fitzgerald Haney to meet one last time with President Obama, he left with a sizable security package.
With an eye toward securing Costa Rica’s borders in a dangerous neighborhood and fighting the transnational criminal networks that thrive in its midst, Washington gifted two 110-ft patrol boats valued at USD30 million to police the country’s Pacific coast, two C145 cargo planes (USD25 million), a 45-ft vessel, two 38-ft interceptors, and 19.5-ft riverine boats, and built a Coast Guard station and pier in the port of Golfito, a hangar and operations center for SVA in Ciudad Neily, and KM35, a crucial security checkpoint facility on the country’s southern border with Panama.
In addition to this security assistance, the US also gave Costa Rica communications equipment to help park rangers; trained 500 officials to help victims of sexual abuse; gave equipment and training for the country’s Juvenile Restorative Justice program, which works to reintegrate juvenile offenders; and gave funding to the Rahab Foundation to help combat human trafficking in the north of the country, long one of its most dire humanitarian concerns.
Equally concerned with at-risk youth and the root causes of entrenched poverty and violence, the US funded more than USD2.2 million in projects through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) in Costa Rica to provide job skills and training to more than 2,300 at-risk youth, in addition to giving half a million dollars to programs fighting to prevent drop-outs and drug use in the provinces of Puntarenas and Limón. Finally, the US Department of Labor also awarded Costa Rica USD3 million to provide workplace-based training programs for at-risk youth.
If anyone was concerned that Trump’s election would lead to a lull in the countries’ strong ties, these were quickly cast aside when President Solís traveled to Washington again in March 2017 to meet with Vice President Pence, then-Secretary of Homeland Security General John Kelly, and Under Secretary of Political Affairs Thomas Shannon. With General Kelly, he discussed bilateral plans to vamp up border security and information collaboration and discussed better ways for Costa Rica to continue working with the Department of Homeland Security to intercept narcotics shipments as they transit through its territory. Indeed, Solís also left the meetings with assurances from US Customs and Border Patrol, US Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), and US Coast Guard that each would continue their efforts to bolster its border security and counter international criminal networks, especially narcotics trafficking and money laundering. Whatever the noble assurances from Beijing, it is clear the Ticos still have a powerful partner to the north.