South America, a new land of conquest for China

The magic of geopolitics sometimes makes us forget distances. The 19,000 kilometers that separate the Argentine capital from Beijing are equivalent to the sum of a Buenos Aires-Paris flight and another between Buenos Aires and Washington. However, it is to China that Argentina has never seemed so close.

If the last official trips of the Peronist government took the South American country’s senior officials to the United States as part of the renegotiation of the national debt with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), all eyes are now on the distant republic. Asian.

Driven by debt and the lack of international currencies, Argentina spares the goat and the cabbage. One day, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Santiago Cafiero, poses with a smile alongside his Chinese counterpart. The next day or so, it was the turn of the Argentine Minister of the Economy, Sergio Massa, to make eyes at Kristalina Georgievathe head of the IMF.

Strategic pragmatism

As we wrote at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, part of Latin America seems to be reconnecting with the old position of neutrality or pragmatism of the “third world”, as defined by Alfred Sauvy in 1952. Namely that “of those which are called, in the style of the United Nations, the underdeveloped countries”. Let us add, to continue the thought of the French demographer: “not aligned” on the East-West axis and “in search of financing” for their development.

Latin America, or more precisely South America, is no longer Washington’s backyard. Most countries in the Southern Cone, which stretches from Colombia to Argentina, now prioritize their trade ties with China. For their part, the United States have not said their last word, particularly in Central America and especially in Mexico, a country which concentrates 70% of Washington’s Latin trade.

“It’s a way of sending a message to the United States and the IMF to say, ‘we can find other financing if you don’t reschedule our debt’.”
Christophe Ventura, research director at IRIS

If Argentina is far from holding the exclusive Chinese interest in the region, it is one of the countries that have intensified their ties the most in recent months. On the menu of this Sino-Argentine rapprochement: the promise of joining the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), with an application already validated by the Asian giant. In this way, Buenos Aires seals the strengthening of its ties with Beijing, which this year has become the first trading partner, ahead of its Brazilian neighbor.

“This Argentinian project of integration into the BRICS amounts to confirming in action the position of President Fernández, inclined to a rapprochement with Chinasummarizes Christophe Ventura, research director at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). It is also a way of sending a message to the United States and the IMF to say: “we can find other financing if you don’t reschedule our debt”. This is not trivial, because Argentina is the country that has received the highest amount granted by the IMF, with the loan granted in 2018.

A new chapter in the Chinese narrative

Relations between Beijing and the Southern Cone had already been on the rise, and had been for about twenty years. But the Covid-19 pandemic has come to blow a little harder in sailing. At the end of 2021, some were talking about effects of “Covid diplomacy” led by Beijing in a region where vaccines and other surgical masks from the West were long overdue.

The diplomatic-sanitary policy has contributed to Chinese expansion, but the latter remains mainly guided by commercial issues. This is what we are debating, in particular on the Argentinian private channel TN, opposed to the Peronist government. To the question posed head-on, “Silk Road, Dangerous Agreements?”, the invited specialists were measured. Many arguments around development opportunities have been opposed to “risks of a new imperialism”proposed by the presenter.

If Brussels seems to be losing interest today in this distant issue, the United States now sees it as a threat.

China’s advance on the world stage is thus taken at a distance. For researcher Fernando Pedrosa, “The ‘Silk Road’ is above all a story”. “Great powers need stories, continues the director of the Asian studies group at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). The USSR was the land of equality among workers, the United Kingdom that of commerce, the United States the land of democracy, and China presents here its own story in its conquest of world hegemony. [Ce récit] is linked to trade, cooperation, world peace…”

Ce win-win Sino-Latin was not built in a day. To retrace the history of this relationship, we must go back to the entry of the Asian giant into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. “Since then, their exchanges have only intensified. That same year, the United States was affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center and got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, they are abandoning Latin America. China’s needs for raw materials and other natural resources have pushed it to get closer to the region, which is becoming its second circle of suppliers, after Africa. In exchange: China abounds with consumer product companies, which are becoming more democratic: TV, smartphone, fridge…”, analyse Ventura.

Result: from the beginning of the 2010s, China overtook Europe and became Latin America’s second largest trading partner. If Brussels seems to be losing interest today in this distant issue, the United States now sees it as a threat. Republican Senator Marco Rubio recently called to “more vigilance” about this question. While in Buenos Aires, US Army General Laura Richardson also shared her concernpointing to the Chinese space station of Bajada del Agrio, in Neuquén (north of Patagonia).

Collaboration or exploitation?

In Argentina, others share these fears from the north. This is the case of Milko Schvartzman, a specialist in marine conservation, who has notably collaborated with the UN and Greenpeace: “Argentina is in a situation of submission vis-à-vis China. The Chinese military base of Bajada del Agrio is an illustration of this..»

Schvartzman’s subject of study concerns one of the most important aspects of Chinese trade in South America: the exploitation of natural resources, in this case those drawn from the Atlantic Ocean. No less than 400 Chinese boats stagnate opposite the Patagonian coast, at the border of Argentine territorial waters. A limit that they regularly transgress to plunder the seabed, thus flouting Argentine national sovereignty.

Chinese companies, directly dependent on the State, are in perpetual negotiation to install new fishing infrastructures, like those they already have in the port of Montevideo (Uruguay). A presence tainted by multiple damning reports concerning the living conditions of the crews and the capture of vulnerable species.

Beyond the logistical contribution, “which would serve to support the exploitation of fisheries resources, the infrastructures serve a geopolitical strategy of territorial presence”, according to the whistleblower. To get closer to the fishing zone, in the South Atlantic, the Chinese fleet would gladly settle in Comodoro Rivadavia (Chubut, Patagonia).

“All countries are victims and responsible at the same timeconcludes Schvartzman. South American states have this dependence on the trading partner in common, but each reacts in a different way.” By way of illustration, the Argentinian deplores the fact that his country has never called the Chinese fleet to account, while Ecuador has managed to move it away 80 nautical miles (about 148 kilometers) from the limit of its territorial waters.

Proof of the dynamism of this fashionable collaboration, Chinese interests in South America are diversifying. To natural resources and raw materials are added new productions, exogenous this time, such as the mega-pig farms – a subject on which Argentina is also at the forefront. Like the overexploitation of fishery resources, pig production casts the shadow of negative ecological externalities. Between financing needs and environmental preservation, the relationship with China is causing South America to swim in troubled waters.

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