How Argentina Has Become China's Foothold In Latin America
China has become one of Argentina's most important trading partners and is increasing its military bases in the country. As China seeks to challenge the liberal world order, Argentina risks rifts with other key allies.
BUENOS AIRES — There was a media furore worldwide in February over the sighting and subsequent downing of mysterious Chinese balloons by the U.S. coastline. The unnerving affair naturally raised a question mark in countries beyond the United States.
Here in Argentina, currently run by a leftist administration with leanings toward Russia and China, we might pertinently wonder whether or not the secretive Chinese base set up in the province of Neuquén in the west of the country in 2015-17 had anything to do with the communist superpower's less-than-festive balloons. It is difficult to say, of course, given the scarcity of information on the base, but the incidents are an opportunity to revise China's presence in Argentina.
As part of its global ascent and increasing challenge to the United States in the western hemisphere, China scored a strategic goal with the Neuquén base, which is run by its army. Supposedly it is there to monitor space, within an opaque agreement relating to "interplanetary exploration activities, astronomical observation, monitoring and control of orbiting satellites and data acquisition," though we may reasonably guess it does other things too.
Recent reports suggest there are plans for another such base to be built in the southern province of Santa Cruz and a naval base in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina. The latter would enable China to back its predatory fishing fleets, and give it greater control over the Strait of Magellan and interoceanic traffic at the tip of the Southern Cone.
The straits are of strategic importance in any conflict scenario, as important as the Panama canal, and would allow Chinese military projection toward the Antarctic. Argentina's foreign minister, Santiago Cafiero, signed an agreement in Rome in 2021, citing the Antarctic as a priority zone of Sino-Argentinian cooperation.
Broadly speaking, China has duly established itself as a significant actor in Argentina's economy.
The value of ongoing or projected investments between 2005 and 2019 has been estimated at $30 billion.
The current administration's first foreign minister, Felipe Solá, called China one of the country's "strategic partners." The two countries' trading relations are asymmetrical and typical of a traditional relation of dependency: Argentina mostly exports primary goods (foodstuffs, farming produce and minerals), and imports high value-added manufactures or technology.
China is our second trading partner after Brazil, while the total value of bilateral exchanges rose from U.S. $3.2 billion in 2003 to $14 billion in 2020.
The value of ongoing or projected investments between 2005 and 2019 has been estimated at $30 billion (or 40% of all investments in South America). Chinese companies invest in strategic sectors of our economy - which are in turn of strategic value to China - such as energy, mines, farming, fishing, transport, and the aerospace, technology and telecom sectors. In finances, China has loaned Argentina just over U.S. $17 billion.
Challenging the world order
President Alberto Fernández announced on his (2022) visit to China Argentina's "sovereign entry" into the Chinese Belt and Road project — effectively its global supply chain — and signed the "biggest deal in history" for China to build a nuclear plant in Argentina.
Firms tied to the Chinese armed forces are also participating in collaborative projects and in sales of fighter jets, patrol boats and armored vehicles to Argentina. Needless to say, when it comes to Chinese state interests, there are no differences between private and state firms as all follow the dictates and global expansion policy set out by the Chinese Communist Party.
There's the potential to cause dependency and give China an undue level of influence
Expert in Sino-Hispanic affairs Evan Ellis sees China as having a singularly consolidated position in Argentina, with benefits unequaled in any other Latin American country. Its location fits perfectly with China's plans to challenge the United States — and the liberal-democratic order — and turn itself into the world's paramount power.
Its special ties with Argentina provide it with another lever for expanding its hemispheric presence in the framework of the China-CELAC Forum set up in 2014.
A container ship travels down the Parana River by the City of Ramallo, near Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The need for public debate
China's strategic presence in Argentina and Latin America has the potential to cause dependency and give China an undue level of influence over those countries. At stake is the national sovereignty of states and democratic security on the continent. Its presence, as a challenge to U.S. regional hegemony, could also fuel rifts and tensions between Latin American states and the United States, which can hardly benefit states like Argentina.
In that case it would be better to firmly sit in the camp where one belongs historically, geographically and for our shared democratic values. There should be no ambiguity or sitting on the fence in this regard, nor would a clear posture exclude trade, the way the EU or the United States itself trade with China.
We should rather be aware of the challenge posed by China's presence to the continent's security and democracy. Public debate is needed on this presence and the scope of our relations with China, and the best time for it is the next general election.
*Rubén M. Perina is an international affairs specialist and former adviser to the Organization of American States.