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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 10-12-2021 22:23

Alberto Fernández caught between Joe Biden and Xi Jingping

The Kirchnerite administration does not want to be forced to choose between the United States and China.

The late Republican senator John McCain wanted to see the United Nations, which he understandably regarded as a flawed organisation dominated by rancorous autocrats who felt nothing but contempt for basic human rights, replaced with a “league of democracies.” Joe Biden evidently finds the idea appealing, which is why he has just hosted a virtual “summit” virtually attended by the representatives of about 80 countries, among them Argentina, that his advisors assume are law-abiding democracies.

For President Alberto Fernández, the invitation to take part came at an awkward moment. While he and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner say they think democracy is a good thing and well worth defending, both very much want to keep on good terms with the rulers of China, Russia and a number of undemocratic regimes in Latin America and elsewhere led by people Biden would like to see put in the dock. They must also feel a bit nervous about the US government’s repeatedly stated determination to root out corruption wherever it can be found. Were that to happen in Argentina, Cristina and her cronies could well have to spend all their remaining years behind bars.

Luckily for them, cleaning up Argentine politics is not a priority in Washington, so the pair still have plenty of wriggle room, but to make good use of it they would have to agree that the Chinese Communist Party poses an existential threat to what North Americans call the rules-based international order they set up in the aftermath of World War II and should be stopped in its tracks.

This is something not only the Kirchnerites but also many of their adversaries are reluctant to do. For them and many others in the rest of the world, China represents an alternative source of credit and investments they can play off against meddlesome US politicians and like-minded Europeans who enjoy taking them to task for their alleged failings.

Until Donald Trump came along, those North Americans who took an interest in foreign policy told themselves that, as China got richer, a rising middle class would make it more democratic so they might as well make the most of the many commercial opportunities that were becoming available. That way of thinking now looks foolish. While it is at least conceivable that one day the Chinese Communist Party could loosen its steely grip on the population, a more democratic China would in all likelihood be an even more formidable foe of US hegemony, especially if, as would almost certainly be the case, her leaders made a habit of whipping up nationalistic sentiments.

Biden’s China policy is much the same as Trump’s. He has no desire to go down in history as the man in charge when the superpower lost its place as a top country – an eventuality that, until fairly recently, had simply not occurred to any of his compatriots. What is more, if it were only a matter of gross national product, seeing far more populous countries overtake the United States would not warrant much concern, but while the Chinese per capita income is, and perhaps always will be, a fraction of those of the US, Japan and many European nations, China’s rulers already have the resources they need to mount a strong technological, and therefore military, challenge to the West.

When the Soviet Union was staggering towards its deathbed, many derided it as “Upper Volta with rockets” – a Third World backwater which just happened to possess a big nuclear arsenal. Nobody these days would dream of saying the same thing about China. Despite the presence of an enormous underclass which has yet to enjoy the fruits of development, she has almost all the trappings of a first-rate power and seems well on the way to acquiring those she still lacks. However, there are worrying signs that the era of breakneck economic growth may be coming to an end and, what is even worse, dire demographic problems are raising their head as the birth rate plummets.

This means that Chinese strategists have good reason to feel pressed for time. To reach the goal of “China as number one,” they will have to make the most of what they have before it is too late. For them, what happened in Japan when the financial bubble burst, bringing decades of rapid growth, and with them, fantasies of world dominance to a sudden end, serves as a warning they cannot afford to overlook. Though Japan continues to be a wealthy country with much to offer the world, she is no longer the frightening economic juggernaut that struck terror into the hearts of North American businessmen when it looked as though she was about to gobble them all up. 

While a similar fate could be in store for China, she would be most unlikely to resign herself to a marginal role. For one thing, she has over 10 times as many inhabitants as Japan. For another, she is bound to get old before she is rich enough to provide decent services for the hundreds of millions of retirees who will need them.

The sense of urgency China’s leaders must feel when they look ahead, and the sheer size of their country they rule, makes them dangerous. Chairman Xi Jinping is dead set on reuniting Taiwan with the motherland and regularly sends warplanes to probe the island’s defences in the hope its democratic rulers (who, to the regime’s disgust, took part in Biden’s summit) will get the message and obediently kowtow to him. Countries which are rapidly getting more powerful but fear for the future are easily tempted into taking serious risks while the going is good.

The US response to the challenge thrown down by China was late in coming but it is getting more vigorous by the day. Like Ronald Reagan when the Soviet Union he described as the “evil empire” loomed large, Biden is making the most of the Chinese regime’s appalling abuses of human rights and its willingness to ride roughshod over the sovereign concerns of neighbouring countries in an attempt to persuade all democratic countries to join the crusade he is leading.

This confronts the Kirchnerite administration, which welcomed the electoral victory of “Juan Domingo Biden,” with a nasty dilemma it would rather not have to face. It does not want to be forced to choose between the United States, which according to some Kirchnerites, is a far more evil “empire” than the Soviet Union ever was, and China, which is currently rolling in money and, if so disposed, could give Argentina a helping hand in exchange for the usual concessions. All this puts Alberto’s government under increasing pressure to climb down from the fence on which it is perched and make it clear which side the country wants to be on. For a number of reasons, this is something it is most reluctant to do.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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