Why Latin America Shouldn't Take Sides In U.S.-China Rivalry
As tensions between Washington an Beijing continue to build, smaller nations like Argentina should stay out of the fray and instead strengthen regional integration.
BUENOS AIRES — Until last year, the triangular relationship between China, the United States and Latin America offered the possibility of cooperation, especially with regards to infrastructure development and energy-sector investment. But deteriorating relations between Washington and Beijing have now made them essentially competitive, despite the recent G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.
Such triangular contexts have never been positive. Hostile U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War were negative for Latin America generally, and our country in particular. There are no benefits to be sought in any triangular linkage inside a competitive context, for three reasons.
First, irrelevance. Currently, the most important relationship to the world order is between Washington and Beijing. And in the competition between the two, neither Latin America as a region, nor Argentina, stands to benefit. Any bid to play a balancing game between two superpowers works on the assumption that the advantages of aligning with one side compensate for any losses incurred from abandoning the other. But that assumes the country in question wields more weight than low-level players like Argentina can muster.
Historically, Argentine foreign policy has had problems gauging the country's real importance to dominant powers of their time, like Great Britain, the United States or China. It overestimated the importance of its ties to London and underestimated the cost of not participating in world wars. There is still no intellectual and political consensus on the place Beijing should occupy in an Argentine national development plan.
Second, agency: Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro"s preference for bilateral ties will take the country toward a tactical rapprochement with the United States. Brazil will exploit the growing rivalry between Washington and Beijing in Latin America, and try to make the region an international, diplomatic battlefield. The goal here is to extract concessions from hawks in the U.S. administration. For Argentina, this Brazilian foreign policy choice implies a triple challenge: keeping Brazil inside regional trade blocs like MERCOSUR, minimizing the negative repercussions of a hardening Chinese stance, and resisting the temptation to overact in a bid to attract or keep Washington's attention.
There is still no intellectual and political consensus on the place Beijing should occupy.
Third, positioning. Our country's ties with the United States or China are not intertwined, not even in competitive terms. We will derive no benefits from being either naive or engaging in intrigues. Investments do not necessarily mean more influence nor will increasing collaborations assure collusion with our country. We might even contemplate areas of trilateral collaboration, like fighting worldwide crime networks.
Keeping the national interest as far away from this global competition as possible would leave Argentina in a better position, given the increasingly restrictive international setting. The triangular perspective on our international relations will erode regional integration and in a world of growing uncertainties, regions are becoming geopolitically more relevant and economically more important.
Importing an asymmetrical conflict, whether to align ourselves or win more autonomy, encourages conflict in a non-functional way. It will increase the likelihood of trade reprisals, reduced access to financing and a resurgence of political confrontation domestically. Perhaps the most beneficial foreign policy option in the short term is to help build structures that are integrated regionally, and open to the world.