January 2008. By Gonzalo Garland, Professor of Economic Environment at IE Business School.
Some analysts believe Spain is playing a key role in building relations between Asia and Latin America. That may be so, but we need to examine some aspects of this role in greater detail.
Recently, certain analysts have commented on the possibility of Spain becoming an important player in the relations between Asia and Latin America. They talk about a “triangulation” between the three geographical and economic areas that can be compared with Spain´s role in the European Union in the relations between the latter and Latin America. To a certain extent, it could also be compared with the important role Spain plays in the region when the interlocutor is the United States. However, there are significant differences that question whether or not Spain´s role can be so relevant in the case of Asia as it has been in the past in the cases of Europe or North America.
No one doubts Spain´s importance in the region of Latin America due to its history, language and culture and to the presence of Spanish enterprises in the local countries. In the European context, this clearly gives Spain and Portugal a privileged position as interlocutors for these countries in the context of the Union. The idea of the Ibero-American summits followed by the creation of the Secretaría General Iberoamericana (SEGIB) constitute two indicators of this trend. We could say that even the geographical location of the Iberian peninsular in the context of Europe makes the relations “natural”. Indeed, some European enterprises with interests in the region manage their operations better from the Iberian peninsular.
The role of Spain in the relations between the United States and Latin America is different. Although the language and the cultural links continue to be an important factor, the geography becomes irrelevant and the economic relations are established directly with no need for Spain´s participation. The free-trade treaties between the United States and many countries of Latin America and those that are being negotiated at present show that the bilateral relations are very intense. The only exception to this rule is the area of politics or when the relations between the world´s leading economy and one country in particular is specially complicated. For example, this is the case of the relations between the United States and Cuba, which are evidently not fluent and in which the Spanish government can play a significant role; however, when the USA manages good relations, priority is placed on bilateral relations.
In Asian countries, the geography is less important, especially for the countries that have a coast on the Pacific Ocean. These countries form part of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which meets annually and in which the relations between the countries are direct. For the countries located on the Atlantic coast, it could be argued that Europe in general and Spain in particular can be seen as a “bridge” to Asia. The opening-up of the São Paulo-Madrid-Shanghai route by Air China a few months ago is one possible sign of this connection, although the political and economic relations between Brazil and China are very intense and do not include Europe. Something similar occurs with most of the countries in the region.
Spain can play a significant role in this triangulation regarding the language and, by association, culture. Through Instituto Cervantes and other institutions such as universities and private centres, people in Asia can learn the language spoken in Latin America. A second area in which this triangulation can arise is business. The Asian companies with a potential or real interest in Latin America know that Spanish enterprises have several years´ experience there. Indeed, this interest can be seen in the academic area, where the Asian enterprises and business schools want to know the events of the last fifteen years in Latin America based on the experience of Spanish enterprises. And it is also possible for medium-sized Asian enterprises to situate their operations centre in southern Europe and in Latin America and Spain in order to explore a market that appears to them as very remote and that perhaps gives them a feeling of insecurity. However, large enterprises will situate their bases in the countries themselves and the political and economic relations will be established bilaterally. Asia is a continent moving forward at full economic steam and is full of self-confidence and can establish direct political and economic relations with the countries of Latin America, which are also wanting to tighten their bonds. Spain´s role in this context is important, but it should not be overestimated.
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