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The Sinic Analysis


Milei, China and the shadow of »King Cobra»

Milei has the opportunity to demonstrate, in terms of his China policy, that defending Argentine interests and, at the same time, principles, should be compatible objectives.
By Juan Pablo Cardenal

Javier Milei’s promises to demolish the political status quo established for decades in Argentina, so that everything changes, persuaded millions of voters. This has raised expectations to the level of his speech. And, as the speculation begins as to whether the future president will fulfill his commitments, China has emerged as the first touchstone for assessing the political purity of the new government.

Milei surprised his followers with a conciliatory response to Xi Jinping’s congratulations. And Diana Mondino, the alleged future FM, met with the Chinese ambassador only hours after the elections. It is not the underlying issue that is squeaking, since the tendency towards pragmatism with such a transcendental partner for Argentina seems inevitable, but the symbolism behind the timing. The haste to meet after the warning from Beijing, which warned that it would be a "big mistake" for Argentina to cut ties with China, sends a signal that worries those who believe that the relationship with China is one of the many things that must change in Argentina.

It is impossible not to recall what Michael Sata, then Zambian presidential candidate, told me in 2010: "The Chinese enjoy conditions based on corruption. When I am president, they will have to comply with labor laws or they will have to go back to China." With an openly anti-Chinese discourse, King Cobra, as he was known, won the election shortly thereafter. Maybe unsurprisingly, his first appointment as president was with the Chinese ambassador. And none of what he had promised to change as a candidate with respect to China he implemented as president.

Everyone understands that the coarse words of a candidate cannot be those of a president. Milei assured that he would not do "business with any communist", compared the Chinese government to an "assassin", and made the remark –so simple to understand, and so true– that the Chinese people "are not free". Burying this kind of rhetoric seems reasonable. But now is the time for facts: for Milei to focus his efforts on having a healthier and more balanced relationship with China.

It is not realistic -and it would be suicide- to break off the trade relationship. But he could bet on the transparency of agreements and contracts, or break the dependencies that Beijing generated – both financial and commercial. The new government should not forget that China does not import Argentine products, or invest in the country to do us a favor, but because it has its own needs and interests in Argentina: its food security (soybeans, meat), and its supply of strategic natural resources (lithium). Understanding this will help to reduce the asymmetry of the relationship.

But, above all, where Milei has a lot to do is in dismantling the political alliance of theKirchneristas governments with the communist regime, including praise and kowtowing. Let us recall the rhetoric: "China is a Chinese-style democracy", or "without the Communist Party, there would be no new China", among other pearls of wisdom. Aligning with the free world and moving out of Beijing’s geopolitical orbit, be it the BRICS club or its close ties to the Belt and Road Initiative, are demands of the promised change.

Milei has the opportunity to demonstrate, in terms of his China policy, that defending Argentine interests and, at the same time, principles, should be compatible objectives. Preventing the shadow of King Cobra from being cast, and not disappointing those who gave him their trust at the ballot box is the challenge he faces.

Juan Pablo Cardenal
Juan Pablo Cardenal
Synic Analysis Editor
Writer, journalist. Foreign correspondent in China for various Spanish newspapers between 2003 and 2014, focusing on China’s international expansion since 2009. Since then, he has done research on the consequences of China’s investments, infrastructure and loans in 40 different countries from 4 continents. The research resulted in books he co-authored, among them “La silenciosa conquista China” (2011) and “La imparable conquista de China” (2015), which were translated to 12 languages. Since 2016, he has directed research projects oriented to understanding China’s soft power and Beijing’s strategy to achieve political influence in Latin America. He has been a speaker in various international conferences and has published articles in El País, El Mundo, Clarín, The New York Times, Project Syndicate and the South China Morning Post. His last book is “La telaraña” (2020), on the internacional thread of political crisis in Catalunia.

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