Could Argentina Join the BRICS?

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Could Argentina Join the BRICS?

China invited Argentina to join the latest summit. But a closer look at relations with current members suggests that “BRICSA” remains a distant dream.

Could Argentina Join the BRICS?

Argentine President Alberto Fernandez (left) poses for a photo with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, Feb. 6, 2022

Credit: Facebook/ Casa Rosada

Argentina’s possible accession to the BRICS – the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – has been on the table for more than a decade, but there has never been any serious attempt until now. Xi Jinping’s invitation to Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández to participate in the 2022 summit, which convened virtually on June 23 with China as host, renewed the debate regarding this possibility, which still seems remote.

This is not the first time an Argentine president has participated in a BRICS meeting: Mauricio Macri attended the summit in South Africa in 2018 and Cristina Fernandez in Fortaleza, Brazil, in 2014, following an invitation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After the visit of current President Alberto Fernandez to Russia (prior to the invasion of Ukraine) and China (in the context of the Winter Olympic Games) at the beginning of the year and of Foreign Minister Santiago Cafiero to India, the idea of Argentina formally joining BRICS has now been revived by the Argentine government and has garnered some distant support among BRICS members.

It is not clear how possible a formal incorporation would be and what sense it would make in the current global context, with Russia actively invading Ukraine. That said, Cafiero participated in the virtual meeting of BRICS foreign ministers in May and Fernandez was invited to the presidents summit.

“Beyond the invitation received by Argentina from China, I do not see the incorporation as a full member of the BRICS as feasible, because it would break the founding spirit of the bloc of having as representatives the most important emerging countries of each continent,” said Patricio Giusto, the director of the Sino-Argentine Observatory.

The current Argentine government has had an erratic foreign policy that does not make its position clear in several geopolitical aspects. With that in mind, it’s relevant to review the state of Argentina’s relations with BRICS countries and reflect on its possible incorporation to the bloc.

After all, as Segio Skobalski, a Ph.D. in international relations and global affairs expert pointed out, “Argentina’s formal incorporation into the BRICS requires full consensus of all members as well as a complex administrative and diplomatic process.”

Relations Between Argentina and China

China is currently Argentina’s main trading partner outside South America. Since Nestor Kirchner came to power in 2003, China has taken on an unprecedented relevance in Argentina’s trade relations. In 2004, during then-Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Buenos Aires, the two leaders signed a strategic partnership that later expanded with the beginning of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s first term and even continued with the arrival of Mauricio Macri, from the opposite political wing, to the presidency. Commodity exports and public works served as central axes for the relationship.

Despite the multimillion-dollar investment announcements and several failed projects, Chinese state-owned companies in Argentina have carried out few public works through government-to-government loans with sovereign guarantees. The renovation of the Belgrano Cargas Railway and the Cauchari Solar Park are perhaps the most successful projects, in addition to some investments especially in sectors such as mining and renewable energy.

As regards BRICS, there were comments from Chinese Foreign Ministry officials in 2014 regarding a possible Argentine membership, but no more than that. Xi’s current invitation to Fernandez can be seen as a return favor for the Argentine president having attended the inauguration of the Olympic Games, where, he sealed Argentina’s inclusion in the Belt and Road Initiative.

However, there have been some short-circuits in the relationship that raise questions regarding Argentina’s possible inclusion in the BRICS.

In a speech made at the Central Economic Work Conference in December 2021, Xi negatively analyzed certain social policies that fit the model taken by the Argentine government: “Some Latin American countries in the past have engaged in populism, and welfare in these countries has raised a group of ‘lazy people’ with unearned incomes.” The Chinese leader continued: “…‘Welfare-ism’ that exceeds one’s ability is unsustainable, and it will inevitably bring about serious economic and political problems.”

Will the Chinese government seek to deepen economic relations with a country it considers in this way? Or will it prioritize the Asian giant’s need for raw materials and minerals?

As if this were not enough, a few weeks ago, during an official trip to Europe, Fernandez declared on the German channel DW that he was “an Argentine Europeanist.” He further stated that “China is a great power but it does not have strong cultural ties with Latin America, it has no history with Latin America.” This is not a positive sign for a relationship that Argentina is supposed to seek to consolidate and deepen.

India Opens as a New Opportunity for Argentina

Cafiero, Argentina’s foreign minister, was received on his latest tour of India by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Cafiero also participated in the Raisina Dialogue, where Jaishankar highlighted the growth of business with Latin America and with Argentina in particular, giving as an example soybean oil imports.

India is Argentina’s fourth largest trading partner and the fourth largest destination of Argentina’s exports. Certain Argentine agribusiness sectors have been stressing the importance of diversifying markets and not depending on China for a large portion of exports. These companies are worried about the remote but possible alignment of Xi with Putin, which may affect trade, and the reprimarization of commodities that trading with China implies, which is not so marked with countries such as India or Vietnam.

It is not minor that India’s foreign minister highlighted soybean oil imports from Argentina, as China is the main buyer of soybeans worldwide. Both India and China require products that Argentina exports, as does Brazil. Is there room for this trade competition within the BRICS?

At the same time, it is also important to analyze for both countries the focus of their strategic partnership in this multipolar world and within the framework of Argentina’s relations with China.

As Hari Seshasayee, a specialist in India-Latin America relations and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said, “In terms of global investment, trade or loans, China’s presence in Latin America is far ahead of India’s.”

But the Argentina-India relationship is growing and the Modi government’s recent moves to eliminate import tariffs on oils can benefit and grow this bilateral link.

Meanwhile, Seshasayee is not very clear about the way forward for BRICS as it currently stands, much less the question of expansion. “Within the group there are two countries, India and China, which currently have an unresolved border conflict,” he pointed out.

“Russia’s position has become much more complex because of the war in Ukraine,” Seshasayee added. “I don’t know what actions the BRICS could take during these geopolitical tensions, and whether they could reach an agreement among all the members.

“If Argentina is really interested in joining the BRICS, perhaps it would be better for them to wait for a better time.”

It’s also worth noting that Indian officials have not made a clear statement regarding the possibility of Argentina’s membership.

Russia and the BRICS Question Mark

Different Argentine governments have had close relations with Putin’s Russia for a decade. Following the invitation to participate in the BRICS summit in 2014, Fernández de Kirchner visited the Kremlin and signed some 20 agreements with Putin on investment and trade, and even nuclear energy.

In 2018, it was Macri’s turn to visit Moscow. The president also signed some agreements with Putin, including one for joint uranium exploration and production.

Earlier in 2022, Fernandez visited the Kremlin as well. In a case of truly bad timing, he told Putin that Argentina should be “Russia’s gateway to Latin America” just weeks before the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Argentina’s foreign policy has taken a somewhat vague position on the conflict that began in February 2022.

It is difficult to decipher what benefits Argentina would gain from joining BRICS given the current geopolitical situation.

“Argentina would not gain anything substantial [from joining BRICS]. It would begin to participate in discussions at the highest level with these countries, but it is something it already has in the G-20,” said Guisto of the Sino-Argentine Observatory. He doesn’t see much potential “not in terms of economic benefits either,” as that is a topic better suited “more for bilateral ties with the members.”

Meanwhile, joining BRICS could have negative consequences from Argentina’s relations with the United States and Europe. As Skobalski explained, “After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. promotes the economic and political isolation of Russia with sanctions and seeks to exclude it from the G-20.” This could affect Argentina’s position prior to the G-20 leaders’ meeting in Indonesia at the end of the year.

Argentina and BRICS: The Final Analysis

Aside from the geopolitics, Argentina’s presence in the BRICS could undermine Brazil’s position by adding to the group not only another country from the same continent but also a commercial competitor in the main agro-industrial markets – China and India among them.

There are thus several unanswered questions regarding Argentina’s interest in jointing BRICS. Does Argentina need to enhance its already complex geopolitical position? Does BRICS need a Spanish-speaking member? Does BRICS need another full member in South America? Does Brazil want to further pave the way for Argentina in markets where the two countries are competitors?

If I had to predict, I would say that “BRICSA” only exists in the dreams of certain Argentine government officials and will never see the light of day. But then, if we had been told in 2019 that there was going to be a global pandemic and a war in Europe, we would not have believed it either.

This article was first published in Spanish by ReporteAsia.