Standing the test of time
By Guo Cunhai  ·  2023-11-26  ·   Source: NO.48 NOVEMBER 30, 2023
An exhibitor shows a ham made in Marcos Paz, Argentina, at the Third China International Import Expo in Shanghai on November 8, 2020 (XINHUA)

Argentina is the farthest country from China in the world, about 20,000 km whether you go west or east. And throughout history, this distance had hindered communication and trade.

But the development of transportation in recent decades and the mutual desire to connect have brought down these barriers, in a concept referred to as la distancia que nos une (the distance that unites us).

For over 50 years, China-Argentina relations have withstood the test of global shifts and maintained health and stability. Their enduring friendship, characterized by mutual trust and common growth, is a testament to their pragmatic, needs-based relationship.

This pragmatic approach has been fundamental, forming the bedrock of their bilateral ties. As history testifies to the strength of this relationship, let us revisit some key moments that have defined China-Argentina relations.

Major moments

Under the influence of Chile, the first South American country to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1970, the Argentine Government took the initiative for talks with China in the early 1970s.

After six months of negotiations, China and Argentina reached an agreement to establish diplomatic ties on February 19, 1972. This need of pragmatic cooperation has run through every stage of the relationship's development since.

The year 1990 marked a second pivotal moment.

In the midst of U.S. sanctions against China, Argentina's then newly elected President Carlos Menem, adhering to a policy of non-interference, extended support to China. His brother, then provisional Senate President Eduardo Menem, visited China, and subsequent reciprocal state visits underscored a pragmatic bond between the two countries. Argentina's understanding and support at this critical time demonstrated a strong pragmatic spirit.

On the one hand, Argentina, which had long suffered from hegemonism, also sought independence and autonomy and rejected external interference.

On the other, the country, mired in debt crisis in the 1980s, urgently needed to get out of its economic predicament and hoped to further strengthen cooperation with China, especially in the economic field. The political trust and understanding between China and Argentina undoubtedly provided an important guarantee for this vision.

After China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001, its "going global" strategy found resonance with Argentina's need for capital and foreign cooperation after the latter's financial crisis.

The exchange of visits between then Chinese President Hu Jintao and then Argentine President Néstor Kirchner in June and November of 2004 yielded fruitful results, including a strategic partnership of the two countries, Argentina's recognition of China's market economy status, and agreements to carry out cooperation in infrastructure, housing, energy, agriculture and other fields, propelling economic ties forward.

The year 2014 was another milestone, with President Xi Jinping visiting Argentina in July.

President Xi met with then President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and they decided to elevate the China-Argentina strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership, which means that the partnership covers a wider range, from politics, economy and trade to security, humanities and international and regional affairs, demonstrating a higher level of recognition between the two sides. The elevation adapted to the reality of the long-term development of both countries. In addition, they signed significant economic and investment agreements, setting a precedent for future relations and cooperation. 

The fifth moment undoubtedly occurred in 2022. That year marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Argentina, as well as the China-Argentina Year of Friendship and Cooperation.

Argentina reaffirmed its independent foreign policy as President Alberto Fernández opposed the politicization of the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. President Fernández attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games. China and Argentina signed a series of documents for further cooperation, including a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative, a China-proposed initiative aiming to boost connectivity along and beyond the ancient Silk Road routes. Argentina was the 21st country in Latin America, and the first major Latin American country, to join the initiative.

Reflecting on the past five decades of China-Argentina relations reveals a consistent thread of pragmatism, nurturing and driving their sustained progress.

Participants from Argentina visit the 134th Session of the China Import and Export Fair in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, on October 15 (XINHUA)

Common interests

Javier Milei was elected president of Argentina on November 19. Milei proved sharply critical of China on the campaign trail, stating that, if he were to be elected, he would isolate Argentina's relations with China.

However, I believe the China-Argentina relationship will once again withstand the test.

The bond between the two countries has already reached a point where it cannot be severed by subjective will, nor is it objectively possible to do so. The China-Argentina relationship benefits both when united, but harms both when divided.

Moreover, taking sides is not in Argentina's best interest, as it could potentially harm its sovereignty. For Argentina, a middle power amid great power competition, a diversified and balanced diplomatic approach is essential to preserve its independence and maximize national interests.

The political and economic intertwinement of China and Argentina has created a de facto community with a shared future, a connection unlikely to be replicated by other major powers.

In the political realm, Argentina and China share mutual interests in core national concerns, including sovereignty. Argentina seeks China's backing in the dispute over the Malvinas Islands, also known as the Falklands, while China needs Argentina's adherence to the one-China principle and firm support of China's positions on issues concerning the Taiwan region. These shared interests have narrowed the distance between the two nations, fostering mutual support on bilateral and multilateral stages.

Economically speaking, complementarity fuels the steady growth of China-Argentina cooperation. From a modest $6 million in trade at the onset of their diplomatic relationship in 1972, trade figures had soared to $21.37 billion as of late 2022.

Since early May this year, Argentina has begun settling imports from China in renminbi, signifying deepening economic ties.

With a significant portion of Argentina's key exports—80 percent of Argentina's beef exports, 88 percent of soybean exports and 20 percent of seafood exports—are sold to China. China has now become Argentina's second largest global trading partner, its largest export destination for agricultural products and its third largest source of investment. 

Differences like trade frictions do exist, but as the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once advised, such problems should be addressed through further development of both economies. Addressing these challenges requires deeper mutual understanding.

Misunderstandings, often stemming from a lack of knowledge about China's history and culture, can lead to misplaced fears like the "China threat" theory. While political and economic ties have grown, cultural exchange lags, requiring more effort and commitment from individuals, communities and institutions.

The author is director of the Center for Argentine Studies, Institute of Latin American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

Comments to zhaowei@cicgamericas.com

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