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A distant friend helpful in pandemic fight

By Jorge E. Malena | China Daily | Updated: 2021-06-08 07:43


Most Latin American countries have received some form of help from China-medical equipment, medicines and/or vaccines-to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic since March 2020.

China has stood out among the concert of nations for cooperation despite some analysts in the West claiming it is using its healthcare expertise and vaccines as tools of soft power in Latin America. It has rebutted such claims, saying it is committed to building a global community of health for all.

That the United States, in contrast to its past cooperation programs, was absent from the global fight against the pandemic was evident to the international community. On the other hand, the world saw China standing by other countries in their hour of need.

China's relationship with Latin American countries, especially in recent months, has shown that distance is not an obstacle to strengthening ties. It is worth highlighting two phenomena during the pandemic: the use of digital platforms to organize meetings; and the creation of air bubbles between China and Mexico and some South American countries.

On digital platforms, a People's Daily report said, under the special background of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Xi Jinping has maintained close contact and communication with the leaders of many Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Venezuela, which has consolidated the basis for the development of relations between China and Latin America under the new situation and illuminated the way toward future relations.

Other examples of videoconferences are the video-linked events organized between the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and China, such as the meeting held on March 24 last year.

Under this framework, another special meeting was held between Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrand (in his capacity as CELAC chair for 2020). During a special session of the China-CELAC Forum held via video link, the participating foreign ministers described how each country was coping with the pandemic, and exchanged views on the economic realities in Latin America.

In the field of business, the Canton Fair was held online, attracting a large number of "visitors" from Latin America. Chinese companies, on their part, scheduled live broadcasts for Latin American countries overcoming the challenges posed by time zones to showcase their products and do business.

As for the air bubbles, they were created to ensure smooth supply of medicines, medical equipment and later vaccines from China to Mexico. A secure air route has already been established between Shanghai and Mexico City for Aeroméxico flights.

The LATAM Airlines Group, which had never operated direct flights between China and Latin American destinations, started flights to and from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong and Fujian provinces to carry medicines and equipment to Chile, Brazil and Peru. In addition, it operated several flights from the Republic of Korea to Colombia.

It was a new experience for Aerolíneas Argentinas, too. Used to flying to Sydney in Australia, its route has always been close to the Polar Circle. It shifted its flight paths further north, in a corridor similar to the one used by the LATAM flights. On April 18, 13 tons of supplies from Shanghai arrived at Buenos Aires international airport. The operation was described by the Argentine authorities as "one more example of the friendship and cooperation that exist between both States".

The success of the air bubbles prompt us to ask: Is it possible to start direct commercial flights between Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires and Shanghai or Beijing in the future?

For most Latin American countries, their two main economic partners are the US and China. But in 2020 the US economy contracted while the Chinese economy grew.

According to data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the region's GDP contracted by 5 percent, the worst drop since 1929, and exports plummeted by 15 percent. Despite the devastating impacts of the pandemic, however, the Latin American economy's recovery could start from trade with China, due to the resumption of near normal economic activities in China and the continued demand for Latin America exports.

Beijing has more economic influence in Latin America than any other competitor to Washington in recent history. In their competition, Washington and Beijing are not only vying for trade, technology and geopolitical spaces, but also partners. For this reason, ties with China represent an increasingly sensitive diplomatic challenge for Latin American countries-especially given the still high tensions between the US and China.

Latin American governments face serious health and economic challenges due to the pandemic-and the added dilemma of choosing between the two countries.

The options available to Latin American governments are to prioritize the traditional alliance with Washington; continue strengthening ties with China; adopt a foreign policy which maintains equidistance from both the poles; or play both cards.

The near future will show us what positions the governments of Latin America take.

The author is director of Contemporary China Studies at Argentine Catholic University, and director of the Asian Affairs Committee of Argentine Council for International Relations.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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