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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 12-02-2022 09:32

An innocent abroad: Alberto in Russia and China

Alberto’s willingness to kowtow to Xi and heap praise on the Chinese Communist regime was by no means as ridiculous as some seem to think, but he could hardly have chosen a worse time in which to cold-shoulder the United States.

Policy wonks in Washington who take an interest in what happens in this part of the world are clearly worried by Alberto Fernández’s expressed desire to ally Argentina with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China which, in the eyes of the more hawkish among them, are busily forging a new axis of evil. Though the best informed must be well aware that Alberto is liable to change his opinion two or three times a day so his public statements mean little, that all he wanted from Putin and Xi was a handful of roubles, yuans or anything else that could be quickly exchanged for dollars and that, in any case, he is far less interested in geopolitical matters than in whatever may be going on in Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s head, few can have felt reassured. They know Argentina is in deep trouble and fear that its stressed-out president could make spur-of-the-moment decisions which would take her out of the Western orbit and turn her into a Chinese client state, a prospect they naturally find alarming as, indeed, do many Argentines.

After decades of taking a paternalistic view of China’s rise because they imagined that economic progress would make her increasingly democratic and therefore something like Hong Kong, North Americans of almost all political stripes have finally realised they are up against a far more formidable competitor than the Soviet Union ever was. China already boasts a gross national product that according to some estimates is as big as that of the United States, if not bigger, and could soon dwarf it even if per capita incomes remain far lower for many years to come. That would be quite enough to make China top nation.

With four times as many inhabitants as the United States, the Chinese can reasonably assume that at least a quarter of them will be able to outperform the average North American by a comfortable margin in just about every field that counts, especially the ones associated with the hard sciences, mastery of which, we are told, will from now on determine a country’s place in the international pecking order. The confidence they feel can only have been enhanced by the poisonous culture wars which are driving down educational standards in the United States where activists insist that, unless all ethnic groups do equally well, or badly, academic tests must be “racist” so something has to be done to prevent whites and East Asians from getting better results than Blacks and Hispanics. While China does have her share of “underprivileged minorities,” on the whole her population is homogeneous enough to allow the regime to overlook them or, if they cause trouble, put them in re-education camps so they can learn to shape up, as a million or so Uyghur Muslims are being forced to do.

From the point of view of North American strategists who very much want to defend the “rules-based” world order they have long struggled to install, China is a far more dangerous antagonist than Russia which, despite her enormous geographical extent, is relatively poor and suffers from social problems which are even worse than those afflicting the two main contenders for world supremacy. Putin would much like to change this and make Russia great again by incorporating into his realm Ukraine and, later on, Belarus followed by Kazakhstan, hence the ostentatious deployment of large numbers of troops close to areas he thinks should be his and the efforts of the United States and the Europeans to dissuade him from taking them over by the traditional military means, but even a restored Tsarist empire would be a weakling in comparison with China which, looking further ahead, could one day begin to give whoever then is in charge of Russia a taste of the Putin medicine after making pointed allusions to the “unequal treaties” of former times. 

Alberto’s willingness to kowtow to Xi and heap praise on the Chinese Communist regime – which under Mao was every bit as murderous as the ones led by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – was by no means as ridiculous as some seem to think, but he could hardly have chosen a worse time in which to cold-shoulder the United States, whose representatives had until then been telling the International Monetary Fund to be kinder towards Argentina’s current government than most others think wise. Will they continue to back Alberto and Martin Guzmán in their tussle with the world’s financial watchdog? If they decide he should be punished for the comments he made in Moscow in an attempt to impress Putin, the coming weeks could be more eventful here than was previously expected.

There are many in Washington and other places in the developed world who are convinced that what Argentina needs most right now is some very tough love because, they say, trying to appease a government as feckless as Alberto’s by setting it undemanding goals is worse than useless, but the people surrounding Joe Biden fear that, should Argentina go into meltdown, as could well happen if hopes of a deal with the IMF fall through, the repercussions would be felt throughout Latin America which, as Putin would put it, is in their “sphere of influence”. Galling as it certainly is to be told that US officials believe they are in some way responsible for what happens in the Western Hemisphere, it remains a fact of life that all Latin Americans have to take into account.

An African proverb has it that “When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” This usually proves to be the case, but unless the North Americans and Chinese start interchanging missiles and turn the entire planet into a battlefield, smaller countries can take advantage of the conflict by playing off one side against the other. This presumably is what, in his extraordinarily clumsy manner, Alberto was attempting to do while in Moscow and Beijing. A more experienced operator than he evidently is would have been careful not to mention the US at all, if only because he would have understood that it would be in his interest to suggest to Putin and Xi that it would not be that easy for them to win his wholehearted support. Instead, Alberto gratuitously offended the US and let the Russians and Chinese think Argentina was there for the taking, so they really had no need to do anything much to help in her hour of need apart from making the usual promises of investments to come in exchange for whatever they may decide to ask for.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

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

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