During the Era of Markets, the world saw a more interconnected global economy emerge. Following the Soviet Union's collapse, the United States stood as the predominant global political force. This period also marked a rapid expansion of global value chains as more countries engaged with the international trading system. Meanwhile, China rose as a major global trading player, becoming the world's top importer of primary goods, especially energy and minerals, and leading the export of manufactured goods.
The future of the global order seems to be headed in two distinct directions. Firstly, the current unipolar world dominated by the United States may transition to a multipolar landscape with the ascent of China and other emerging economies. Secondly, this shift towards multipolarity might result in the formation of more defined regional blocs.
In this evolving world order, Latin America's role is noteworthy. The region is increasingly embracing multipolarity. In 2000, the United States was the primary trading partner for most Latin American countries. However, from 2000 to 2021, Latin America's trade with China surged by 28 times, outpacing the trade growth with other emerging and middle-income nations. During the same period, the region also maintained strong trade relations with the United States.
In South America, China has become the leading extraregional trading partner for most large economies. In Central America, while the U.S. remains the primary trade partner, China has ascended to the second spot. Mexico, in particular, experienced a dramatic increase in trade with China and, by 2019, had surpassed China as the largest U.S. trading partner, bolstered by the US–Canada–Mexico Trade Agreement.
Beyond trade, Latin America's multipolarity extends to public perception and global policy. Surveys indicate that the United States and China are viewed with similar favorability in the region. In international forums like the UN General Assembly, Latin America is the least aligned region with either the U.S. or China.
Despite these growing global connections, Latin America has not fully capitalized on them for deeper integration into the global economy. Excluding Mexico, about 56% of Latin America's goods exports are primary goods, a figure that rises to 80% for exports to China. In comparison, primary goods constitute about 30% of exports for other emerging and middle-income countries. The ongoing conflict in Europe, heightening geopolitical considerations in trade, presents an opportunity for Latin America to diversify its economic relations.
Moreover, focusing on trade with North America reveals significant economic potential for Latin America through "nearshoring," as businesses look to bring production closer to North American markets.
With a population exceeding 600 million, Latin America stands out for its linguistic unity; about 95% of its inhabitants speak either Spanish or Portuguese. This linguistic commonality sets the region apart from others, where multiple languages often pose challenges to connectivity. However, despite this linguistic advantage, Latin America displays less cohesion compared to other regions in certain aspects. The region's intraregional road infrastructure is rated as the least developed, surpassed only by sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, intraregional exports make up just 14% of Latin America's total exports, a considerably lower percentage than in most other regions. Commitments to enhancing regional trade integration have not consistently translated into effective implementation.
This lack of regional cohesion is also evident in educational exchanges. While a majority of European students studying abroad choose destinations within Europe, despite the continent's diverse languages, Latin American students predominantly study outside their region. In an increasingly multipolar global landscape, Latin America could seize more opportunities by strengthening regional ties and overcoming its unique geographic and infrastructural challenges.
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