When China's President Hu Jintao visits Latin America later this month, somebody should tell him in unmistakable terms: If China wants to be a well-respected world power, it should be a better global citizen.
That's the first thing that came to my mind when I read the results of the United Nations Donors Conference for Haiti held in New York on April 1, in which 59 countries and international organizations made pledges to help rebuild Haiti. The Chinese contribution was, to put it nicely, pitiful.
Overall, the much-awaited Donors' Conference collected $5.3 billion for Haiti's reconstruction over the next 18 months. That will be on top of what countries have already contributed in emergency relief aid following the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that, according to the Haitian government, left more than 300,000 dead.
The United States pledged $1.15 billion, in addition to the $900 million it has already given, and the 27-country European Union pledged $1.6 billion, in addition to the $370 million it has already offered.
(I'm not including Venezuela's grandiose announcement that it was offering $2.4 billion, more than anybody else, because the Venezuelan government later conceded that it was playing games with the figures: The South American country will be contributing that money over the next six years, rather than the next 18 months, and the figure includes a pardon for $400 million in Haiti's debts.)
By comparison, China pledged $1.5 million -- yes, you read it right, million with an "m" -- in addition to the nearly $14 million it has already given, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency. That's much less than countries such as Qatar and South Korea, which have pledged $20 million and $10 million respectively over the next 18 months.
Part of the reason behind China's minuscule contribution may be that China and Haiti don't have diplomatic ties. But then, the absence of diplomatic relations hasn't prevented China from having a more than 200-person peacekeeping force in Haiti, which included eight soldiers who died during the Haiti earthquake.
"This is the worst recorded natural disaster in history in terms of lives lost; there's no way that you can say that $1.5 million is a decent contribution," says Mark Schneider, the top Latin American expert with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization. "Clearly, China did not meet the standard that one would set for a good global citizen."
Judging from what I hear from diplomats and relief-organization officials, China hasn't been very generous with Chile, either, after that country's Feb. 27 earthquake. China pledged $1 million in relief aid shortly after the earthquake, and days later announced an additional $2 million, according to the Xinhua News Agency. That was a small fraction of what other big countries donated.
R. Evan Ellis, a professor at National Defense University in Washington who has written extensively about China's growing presence in Latin America, and who generally sees that trend as positive, says there are several other areas in which China could behave like a better global citizen.
Chinese companies in Latin America have often run into problems with local environmental and labor laws, in part because they are not used to respecting the same rules inside China, he said. "In terms of corporate responsibility, Chinese companies are today where U.S. companies were half a century ago," he added.
In addition, China is buying huge quantities of Latin American raw materials -- its imports from the region soared from $10 billion in 2000 to $140 billion in 2008 -- but is investing relatively little in the area.
My opinion: China's explosive growth in recent years has been a godsend for Latin America, especially South America's raw-material exporting countries. So when Hu visits Brazil, Venezuela and Chile on April 14-18, he should be treated accordingly, and receive a red-carpet treatment.
But he should be reminded that China has already become one of Latin America's top economic partners, and that it can't pretend to be a major world power when it's in its own interest and as a far-away developing country when it's not. It's time for China to try to earn other countries' respect as a trusted partner and a good global citizen, like other big countries do.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.