It’s been a while since China built a transcontinental railway in the Americas. Last time, Chinese laborers were deployed to work on the railway that linked the East and West Coasts of the United States—and were rewarded with epidemic labor abuse and racial-exclusion laws. Today, China has a lot more to gain from its latest railway construction venture: linking two oceans again, but this time across South America, in a bid to grow its dominion in a region historically viewed as Washington’s backyard.
The interoceanic rail line crossing Brazil and Peru—sinophilically branded as the “Twin Ocean Railroad”—would facilitate cheap exports from Latin America to China, by channeling raw materials from inland resource bases to coastal ports. The grand railway, projected to cost about $10 billion, is billed as a solution to the logistical barriers that currently impede overland transport, streamlining shipping and cutting processing costs.
The key beneficiaries reflect a cross section of the kind of breakneck development that many “emerging” economies in Latin America often covet: The project will boost Brazil’s soybean industry, a sector known for destroying local habitats through soil erosion and deforestation, spurring widespread population displacement and social turmoil.
According to Thomas Alvarez, a research associate with the left-leaning think tank Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the rail project is “definitely a form of neocolonialism… not in the sense of the United States where they were trying to push their ideology of Western democracy, because China’s never really been interested in this.” Instead, China lacks the pretense of benevolent imperialism that Washington has imposed since the days of the Monroe Doctrine: “They’re in it for economic gain.”
But as with the “Yankee imperialism” of yesteryear, there’s been evidently little accounting for the human and environmental costs of this expansion of extractive industries.