BUENOS AIRES — As China extends its investment reach to just about every corner of the globe, the enormous amounts of capital at play are transforming economic and strategic relations the world over.
Latin America is one of the Asian giant's key investment targets. But of all the region's countries, only Brazil appears to be an active investment partner. In contrast, Argentina has taken a passive approach, one that it should consider reevaluating. The official discourse here is that Argentine-Chinese relations represent a "south-south" partnership between developing countries. But that line of thinking is increasingly difficult to sustain and only serves to justify bad policies.
Beijing's strategy currently rests on two broad axes launched years ago. One has to do with 1995 financial reforms that boosted the country's finances and created large private and state banks to fund Chinese enterprise abroad. The ICBC, which operates in Argentina, is one of those banks. The second pivotal change came in 1999, when China introduced its Going Global policy as a way to encourage Chinese companies to invest abroad.
Investment projects are financed mainly by enormous private and state-sector reserves that have accumulated outside China thanks to a booming economy. Its standout investment initiatives:
• The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), launched in 2014 in partnership with dozens of countries, with China as its primary contributor of capital and main vote holder. AIIB seeks to compete with Western-dominated institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to finance infrastructure projects in various countries.
• New BRICS development bank. The bank of Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa, the so-called "emerging" economies, will also finance public works, with an initial capital of $2 billion brought in by each founding partner over seven years. The BRICs are also using this bank as a counterweight to financing bodies in which their voting power is limited. The financial clout of BRICS has recently declined because of macroeconomic problems in Brazil and Russia. But there is no ruling out the long-term potential of their economies.
• CELAC-China alliance. China is creating a $35 billion investment fund directed at the 33-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
• Mega projects in Asia, Africa and Europe. These are being complemented by trade liberalization accords and are related mainly to the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) project, a 21st century revival of the great trading route that linked the East and West. Eventually, it could create a rail link between cities as distant as Chongqing and Madrid. Most countries involved in the SREB and its sister initiative, the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), are partners in AIIB.
Money ... and armed incursions
China's expansion is not just a matter of cash. Its navy is advancing in maritime zones China considers of strategic interest, either as trade routes with partners or for their oild and gas reserves. One such incursion is in the South China Sea, where China is setting up infrastructure around islands claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines (Spratly and Paracel islands).
The aims of China's investment race include building up a global infrastructure to ease the flow of products to and from China; creating investment opportunities for rapidly growing Chinese companies; and investing currency reserves in more profitable products than public debt.
This redirecting of investments from bonds to the real economy has a strategic impact on U.S.-Chinese ties, as China will cut back on financing the U.S. deficit, and on its exposure to U.S. economic problems.
As China provides more credit, more countries will use the RMB, or yuan, and help make it a truly international currency. China is aiding this trend by piloting free-exchange zones like those in Shanghai.
Infrastructure projects will also contribute to developing China's more backward interior regions, and help reduce migration to cities. Already in developed coastal zones, overpopulation and slower economic growth are fueling social tensions.
The U.S. and its allies are following these developments with real concern, as evidenced by President Barack Obama's trip to Asia, where he promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade liberalization pact that would include U.S. allies in Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific zone but exclude China. The formation of antagonistic trading blocks, nevertheless, seems unlikely given that many U.S. partners are enmeshed in other pacts with China. An example is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free-trade project including China, all Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, along with Australia and Japan, both solid U.S. allies.
The overlapping of so many pacts and interests shows the increasing complexity and fluidity both of economic opportunities and of strategic challenges and rivalries.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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