A new poll detailing how Argentines view China has revealed something of a success story for the People’s Republic's inroads into Latin America, spelling danger for US officials hoping to curb its adversary’s growing influence in the region.
The Argentina-Pulse survey, which quizzed 1,019 locals about their opinions of foreign countries, found that 76 percent held a positive view of China. Furthermore, 54 percent of respondents said that, if necessary, Argentina should seek to prioritise its relationship with China over the United States.
“That certainly reduces the influence of the US government in Argentina,” said Benjamin Gedan, the director of the Argentina Project at the Wilson Center, a US-based think-tank that carried out the poll with local pollsters Polarquía Consultores. “But Argentine openness to China is not an attempt to embrace a US adversary… rather it's a recognition of the importance of Chinese finance for Argentine infrastructure, and of the importance of the Chinese market for Argentine exports.”
Beijing’s popularity in Argentina materialised alongside its emergence as an economic power on the world stage, supported by Chinese immigration to Argentina and cultural exchanges, according to Jorge Malena, director of the graduate course on contemporary China at Catholic University of Argentina (UCA).
“At the beginning of the 2000s, China not yet acquired it’s political and international economic projection that it possess currently, as it was seen as an emerging economy,” Malena said. “This situation has changed in the last 10 years, as China today is one of the three principal commercial associates, foreign investors, lenders and senders of technology to Argentina.”
Argentines also tend to have a positive view of China’s increasing investment in the country, which has diversified from infrastructure projects like the General San Martín Railway to foreign direct investment.
The poll found 80 percent viewed Chinese investment in Argentina’s struggling economy positively.
Since 2005, Chinese policy banks have lent US$17-billion to the government to fund energy and infrastructure projects, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a US-based think tank that tracks Beijing’s lending in the region.
Many of these loans were approved under the governments of former presidents Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, including financial support for two hydro-electric dams in the their home province of Santa Cruz.
Yet President Mauricio Macri, unlike many of his conservative counterparts in the region, has shown little reticence in accepting vast Chinese loans, despite initial rhetoric indicating he was far from keen on Beijing. In fact, the president has even continued projects, like the dams in Santa Cruz province, approved by Fernández de Kirchner.
Facing infrastructure and energy necessities, Macri accepted a US$1.1-billion loan from the People’s Republic to fund the General San Martín railway.
Earlier this year, his government went forward with a deal, which was negotiated by previous Kirchnerite administrations, to build a nuclear power plant, the Atucha III, in Buenos Aires Province, accepting a US$10-billion loan to finance 85 percent of the project.
Despite Macri’s role as key US ally in the region, his supporters also view China positively, the new survey revealed. Some 83 percent of Macri supporters said they viewed China favourably, while 35 percent said they thought Argentina should prioritise relations with China over the United States, according to the poll.
“Macri is successfully walking this tightrope,” Gedan said. “Though China was closely associated with Fernández de Kirchner when Macri took office, Macri’s supporters have not objected to his close ties to Beijing.”
'Debt trap' diplomacy?
The expansion of Chinese loans and infrastructure over the last decade, through Argentina and the rest of Latin America, has finally caused a furore in Washington DC, however, with accusations of “debt trap” diplomacy abound, fuelling the Washington’s heightening tensions with Beijing.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a trip to Latin America in October 2018, directly rebuked Chinese loans for development projects.
“When China comes calling it’s not always to the good of your citizens,” said Pompeo, who met with Argentine officials earlier this month to discuss new bilateral agreements.
However, the quality of Chinese infrastructure projects has improved over time, as has the Argentine government’s oversight, dulling US warnings of “debt trap” diplomacy, said Gedan.
Thanks to the business-friendly Macri, the US has re-established its foothold in Argentina has it seeks to counter Chinese influence in the Americas. Through joint-military training and US$3-billion in energy financing, a new balance of power has emerged between the world’s two biggest economies.
“The United States is back and our partnership is here to stay,” Pompeo said at a press conference in Buenos Aires earlier this month, moments before announcing new partnerships with Argentina on security, economic development and terrorist financing.
The survey also revealed that most Argentines think the country should hedge its bets. Caught amidst a global power struggle, 62 percent rejected the idea that the nation should choose between the United States and China.
Nevertheless, Washington still wields an enormous amount of soft power, cultural, political and economic, across Argentina and the rest of the region.
“In terms of everyday life, the US way of life, the Western Europe way of life, continues to have much more soft power in Latin America than any other alternative that is out there being offered,” said Francisco González, a professor of international political economy and Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University.
With elections looming in October between two political factions supportive of China, Argentine ambivalence toward wadding into geopolitical strife is the “best China could hope for,” according to Gedan.
“China is a relatively new phenomenon for Argentina, and views of China are not strongly held,” Gedan added. “Whereas Argentina’s relationship with the United States has a long and complicated history, and involves far deeper people-to-people engagement, China remains a relatively vague and distant concept.”
Despite Argentina’s electoral uncertainty, Malena stressed that “both economies are complementary” and that co-operation with China will persist through science and technology, tourism and education.
“The bilateral relationship [with Beijing] will continue developing itself, beyond whatever political party governs Argentina,” Malena said.