Buenos Aires Times

Washington or Beijing, if there is a question

“We are evidently not on the priority list for the US or the European Union – you only have to look at their actions and the documents spelling it out to see that,” Diego Guelar, Argentina’s ambassador to China, told the Times.

Saturday 21 October, 2017
Mauricio Macri.
Mauricio Macri. Foto:Pablo Temes - CEDOC.

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With the midterm elections finally over, President Mauricio Macri will presumably be resuming his government’s agenda as from Monday, placing on hold – at least until early 2019 – all that doorbell-ringing and the rest of the campaign frenzy.

By that time, over in Beijing, President Xi Jinping will be winding up the 18th Communist Party Congress, after presenting the new Politburo Standing Committee to 2,300 party delegates, the 1.4 billion Chinese and the rest of the entire world. And by then, the most powerful man on the planet, as The Economist described him a fortnight ago, will have spelled out his programme of expansion and opening up the economy for the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump will be blasting off one 140-character soundbite after the other, blazing away with threats against Iran, Mexico, Venezuela and North Korea, his stock foreign policy punching-balls.

But there will be a new member of that team: China. As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson unabashedly made clear to the press this week when he repeatedly said China “went too far” and that “some things have gotten out of whack” in US-China relations. Not only that either. He added that the good guy in Asia and America’s best future partner was now India. An uppercut aimed firmly at Beijing.

At the ringside of this heavyweight boxingmatch, Argentina will be choosing which of the two superpowers it gains the most from by refreshing them with lemon-laced water and a towel – the US or China? “We evidently are not on the priority list for the US or the European Union – you only have to look at their actions and the documents spelling it out to see that,” Diego Guelar, Argentina’s ambassador to China told the Times.

There was something of that in the past week too. France told Brazil that it was breaking away from the long-awaited EU-Mercosur agreement forecast with exaggerated optimism for the end of this year. From Washington, Donald Trump rang up his former real-estate colleague Mauricio Macri to remind him that he would be shipping over the pork, as promised by his veep Mike Pence on his trip to Buenos Aires. (That, according to the US State Department press release; in contrast, the Pink House reported that the meat in question was beef, adding biodiesel too). No doubt something was lost in the interpretation. Or the menu.

On the other side of the globe everybody seems to be on the same page. Even without the telephone link between the Pink and White Houses, Ambassador Guelar maintains that “the relationship between Xi Jingping and President Mauricio Macri is optimal,” adding “I would not be exaggerating if I say that it is the most solid among all Latin American leaders.”  

“Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Peru are all clearly on China’s agenda,” continued Guelar. “The volume of trade, investment and financing already underway, along with that programmed for the next five years, is turning our region into an active part of the One Belt, One Road programme”.

According to the ambassador, “this is only partly perceived in the region – a more general awareness is doubtless pending.”

In other words, what the diplomat wishes to underline is that the region (including Argentina and Beijing’s alleged favourite Mauricio Macri, with investments of US$30 billion in the next five years, as well as from the US$11-billion swap with the Chinese Central Bank) is part of China’s growth and development strategy. And what is Washington’s own strategy for South America and Argentina? Erratic and opaque for now.

Michael Reid, The Economist’sLatin America editor, has described it well: “Instead of a Latin American policy, the emerging picture is of an administration that, more than most, takes different approaches to different countries at the behest of different players in Washington”. Too many policies … meaning what? Meaning none.  

But that non-policy is not completely hollow. Rex Tillerson (we must return to him toward the close of this column) told the Wall Street Journal that “China offers countries large amounts of foreign aid” but that “recipients often are left with debt they have difficulty repaying.” “We will not be able to compete with the kind of terms that China offers,” he added, “but countries have to decide what are they willing to pay to secure their sovereignty and their future control of their economies”.

The response to that warning (threat?) came from President Xi during the Communist Party Congress when he urged all countries to “reject the Cold War mentality and power politics.”  

Surely Chinese rhetoric (probably its meaning was lost in translation) but it is doubtless almost a tautology when the most powerful man in the world, who builds artificial islands to encroach on the China Seas, urges against playing power politics. Over and above, whether the world (and Argentina) are spectators of a Cold Warstyle boxing-match between China and the US or mere tit-for-tat sparrings, in the second half of his term President Macri will have to chose one corner of the ring.

“The new economic centre of the world is in Asia and the leading partner of Europe and the USA is China – thus there are no contradictions in dealing with Beijing but rather a multiplication of opportunities,” concludes Guelar.

So if Argentina wants to have its cake and frosting, and besides eat it too, it should quickly name ambassadors in Washington and Paris. All three posts arecurrently vacant. It’s about time.

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