China’s growing global influence shows in Costa Rica


They say that travel broadens the mind. At the least, it should give some perspective. On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I was confronted with a different look at the soft Cold War between the U.S. and China — specifically on the front of transportation and mobility in Latin America.

I was amazed at the diversity of brands I saw on the roads in San Jose and in the countryside. Lots of Hyundais, Toyotas and Nissans, of course. But also some long-retired U.S. models, such as a Geo Metro and a Chevy Tracker. There were European models uncommon to North American streets including a Citroen C3 and a Fiat Palio.

It seemed strange to see so many Suzukis and the occasional SsangYong. But what was most jarring to my Midwestern eyes were all the Chinese cars.

A Chery Tiggo, a tiny BYD, a JAC work truck — it would’ve been hard to miss China’s presence in the market.

As many travelers do, I often took Ubers to get around, though I’m told that the company doesn’t exactly have legal standing to operate. (Some company traditions, it seems, travel well across national borders.)

One of the last — and nicest — Ubers I rode in was a Geely. (Sorry I don’t know the model: The only badging I saw said SRS, but I believe that’s an airbag, not a vehicle.)

Not that the car was impressive by North American standards — any critic would blast its hard, plasticky interior. But compared with other rides for hire, that interior came off as clean, durable and stylish.

Why are Chinese cars popular? Low prices.

They tend to run about 30 to 40 percent cheaper than comparable vehicles from global brands, said Guido Vildozo, an expert on the Latin American market who is now IHS Markit’s senior manager for light-vehicle sales forecasting in the Americas.

That’s especially important in light of significant tariffs, which range from 30 to 50 percent for new and used vehicles, according to the International Trade Administration.

Crucial to developing staying power in the market: available and affordable replacement parts.

“The engines are still legacy Japanese engines for the most part, which is great because … you are rich on Asian components,” Vildozo said. “Having, you know, a former Mitsubishi engine or having a former Toyota engine is an advantage because the parts are going to be readily available.”

The sales are adding up. It’s harder to track in Central America, he said, but across South America, Chinese brands make up about 15 percent of the market. Including China-made vehicles of global brands — models such as the Buick Sail and Honda City — China’s share tops 20 percent, he said.

China’s rising influence isn’t just vehicular — it includes mobility more broadly. While Uber Eats was openly delivering meals, I also saw a scooter labeled as DiDi Food — the affiliate of ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing.

Consumers everywhere simply want the best value they can get. Governments’ motivations aren’t always as straightforward, but they’re usually logical in some way. While the U.S. has long assumed a certain amount of influence over Latin America, China has used its largesse to try to make some friends there, as it has in Africa and other regions.

“Talking at a governmental level, China has certainly been front and center when it comes to Latin America,” Vildozo said. “They financed dams, they financed roads, they financed infrastructure, electricity” — and without the strings that USAID, the World Bank or International Monetary Fund typically attach to big lending projects.

With President Joe Biden maintaining former President Donald Trump’s 25 percent tariffs on most Chinese goods, American consumers — especially car shoppers — have essentially no access to Chinese-brand autos. Probably little interest, too.

But America’s lack of exposure to Chinese brands doesn’t mean that those brands — or China’s government — are staying in China. As the two superpowers navigate some kind of coexistence, it seems important to take note that the world’s most populous country is expanding its influence far beyond Asia — and even to America’s southern neighbors.

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