White House

China’s Xi wins optics game at G20 as he and Trump compete for Latin America

The contrast was clear as soon as the two leaders landed.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was welcomed by Argentine Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie with special honors that included a red carpet walk and and a military band.

President Donald Trump arrived on Air Force One two hours later. Faurie welcomed him as well, but no military band. Trump waved to the press before quickly getting in his motorcade and shuttling off to the hotel.

It left little doubt about Argentina’s interest in strengthening its relationship with the communist government despite White House warnings of its “predatory economic activity.”

One of the most anticipated bilateral meetings of the weekend’s G20 summit in Buenos Aires is between Trump and Xi on Saturday. But hanging over the meeting will be questions about which of the two superpowers will win the battle over influence in the region.

China has recently lost a bit of influence with the leadership changes in Brazil and Mexico, but in Argentina it’s clear that China’s influence is growing as the communist government extends its reach into the cultural, political and economic arenas.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri and Xi are expect to sign as many as 37 bilateral agreements during a state visit following the G20, including a potential deal on a multibillion-dollar nuclear power plant and a $9 billion increase in credit.

The welcome ceremony for Xi was different because his trip is part of an official state visit that requires certain protocol. Xi will also stay a day longer after Trump leaves to discuss deeper coordination in international and regional affairs.

“I look forward to having extensive exchanges with President Mauricio Macri and people from all walks of life in Argentina, and jointly opening up a new era for the China-Argentina comprehensive strategic partnership,” Xi told Chinese state media upon his arrival.

Macri has also visited Beijing. But this is Trump’s first visit to Latin America.

Optics are a big factor for international summits like the G20 meeting of the world’s top economies, where one of the biggest events is the “family picture.” The world’s attention is on how the world’s most powerful leaders interact and demonstrate their commitment to the global economy. So far, Xi appears to be winning the battle as he preaches partnership while Trump shortens his schedule.

“We can have a more deeper conversation among foreign policy folks about who how much of the promises the Chinese make ever come to fruition and if the US not working in terms through the private sector vs the public sector as is the Chinese model, I get all that,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is now is vice president of the Americas Society and Council of the Americas in Washington. “But in terms of the optics, in terms of what people will see who don’t focus on these issues on the day, that’s what they’re going to come away with. And the Chinese are very good at that game and we have to improve ours.”

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Florencia Ramirez, 27, and Yesica Volpe, 27, stand outside their store in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina as local police prepare for a large G20 protest on Nov. 30, 2018.

Politically, it appears that Macri, who is running for re-election next year, has reason to continue the relationship with Xi despite White House efforts to drive a wedge between them and China. Some 58 percent of Argentines hold a positive view of Xi, compared to only 36 percent for Trump, according to a national survey conducted this month by Poliarquía Consultores, one of Argentina’s leading polling firm, and the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

If he had to choose, Jorge Colonel, 57, would pick the United States over China. Walking his two dogs near the G20 security zone, the city administration worker said more Argentines have been to the United States. Many strive to live in America, he said, and see their northern neighbor as a better example for future success.

But Florencia Ramirez, 27, said she has more faith in China. Ramirez, who works as a small retail store near the congress palace in downtown Buenos Aires, feels that Trump is more interested in helping out the elite, including in Argentina. But she sees China helping other Latin American governments building roads and bridges that, she said, also benefit the lower and middle class.

“I trust China more,” she said.

China’s reach in Argentina is more than just roads and bridges.

It has established Confucius institutes that promote Chinese culture and language at the University of Buenos Aires.

This year, the National University of La Plata started a new post-graduate program in Chinese studies taught by Chinese professors who travel several times for the program.

Norberto Consani, director of the International Relations Institute at the National University of La Plata, said the 22 students in the program now will be better suited to work with the Chinese when they come to Argentina.

“They study culture, politics, economics, media,” Consani said. “It’s exclusively Chinese studies. What’s special about this program is that professors come from China. There is no other program like it that I know of.”

Next week, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences in China and the Argentine Council for International Relations will host a symposium in Buenos Aires on the potential benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump and Argentine President agreed to confront China’s “predatory economic activity.”

The administration paints China’s global investment program, Belt and Road Initiative, as a debt trap fueling greater economic dependency. Vice President Mike Pence has used Sri Lanka as an example of such dangers when it struggled to pay back Chinese loans. China now owns the port.

Latin American officials repeatedly say they would rather work with the United States, with whom they have a more established relationship and common goals. But with many of their economies in struggle, leaders say they need cash to build roads, telecommunications equipment and energy systems. And China is willing to provide it in ways that the United States can not.

During Macri’s state visit to China last year, he attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Argentine Ambassador to China Diego Ramiro Guelar has touted Belt and Road as significant to the global economy, according to Chinese state media.

But a new crop of elected leaders seeking closer ties with the United States has opened up more opportunities.

On Thursday, national security adviser John Bolton traveled to Brazil where he met President-elect Jair Bolsonaro to discuss how to combat China’s push to gain political and economic influence.

Bolsonaro campaigned on distancing Brazil from China and visited Taiwan. He too has called China a predator. The incoming Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist, has given mixed signals that include seeking to some distance with China saying he wants to lower the trade surplus China has.

“Everybody will be watching,” said former Mexican ambassador to China Jorge Guajardo. “Nobody wants to come out and support Trump. Because it’s not popular to support trump, but in a sense I think he’s got the region’s backing in how he approaches China.”

Macri also campaigned on distancing Brazil from China, but many of his economic policies have not worked as planned and he now confronts a sinking economy. This year, the Argentina GDP is expected to shrink by 2.4 percent.

Senior administration officials say the United States is focused on helping Latin American develop their own economy and that China encourages bad habits that lead to greater debt dependency. One example, officials said, is in energy. U.S. officials recently signed a pact with Panama to expand the distribution of U.S. liquefied natural gas in Latin America. It’s part of the “Americas grow” or “America Crece” initiative that promotes U.S. exports of energy and energy infrastructure and make it easier for U.S. businesses and U.S. financial markets to invest.

Fernando Cutz, a former senior director at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, said Latin American countries will eventually need to choose between the United States and China. If Bolsonaro carries out his plans to privatize state-controlled companies and reform the tax code, it would almost naturally bring the Brazil closer to the United States – hence distancing it from China.

“It’s very bipolar,” Cutz said. “You can’t really do both. Our models and views are very different than the Chinese views and models are for Latin America,” said Fernando Cutz, “So if you’re running toward us then you’re definitely running away from them. There is no real way to do both.”

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez

As part of China's pledge to double trade with Latin America by 2020, Chinese company Chinalco expanded its mining operation high in the Central Andes near the town of Morococha. This expansion forced Chinalco to build a new town and relocate its

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.


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