Will Argentina’s President-elect Javier Milei side the 'free world' and avoid China?

Academic Antonio C. Hsiang notes that Argentina’s President-elect Javier Milei will be facing several challenges once he assumes office. From carrying out transitional justice to managing economic ties with the Mercosur countries and China, Milei will have his work cut out for him.
Argentina's President-elect Javier Milei gestures during a session at the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 29 November 2023. (Juan Mabromata/AFP)
Argentina's President-elect Javier Milei gestures during a session at the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 29 November 2023. (Juan Mabromata/AFP)

After “Argentina’s Donald Trump” Javier Milei, presidential candidate of the far-right La Libertad Avanza party, won the primary election on 13 August, The Wall Street Journal men’s fashion columnist Jacob Gallagher published an article titled “This Politician Just Won Argentina’s Primary. His Hair Is Baffling the World.”

On 19 November, Milei again shocked international media with his victory over Sergio Massa of the ruling Union por la Patria party, gaining 55.69% of votes. Milei would face domestic, regional and global challenges after he takes office as Argentina’s president on 10 December.  

Many who voted for Milei were not his supporters but were more doubtful about the Peronist party’s ability to represent the masses than they were fearful of Milei’s rule.   

Domestic: re-emergence of ‘Pendulum Theory’

In comparative politics, the “Pendulum Theory” — based on the political and economic development of modern Latin America — argues that the political systems of Latin American countries oscillate between democracy and authoritarianism at intervals of about two decades. Social instability and failure in economic development in a democracy can lead to the emergence of authoritarian regimes, which could then lead to the return of democracy in the face of pressure from the West.   

Argentina has long been subject to the “pendulum effect” — a combination of foreign manipulation and problems in the country’s economy, society and ecology. In the 40 years after the return of democracy in 1983, Peronism, or Kirchnerism, ruled Argentina for 28 years. Many who voted for Milei were not his supporters but were more doubtful about the Peronist party’s ability to represent the masses than they were fearful of Milei’s rule.   

Argentine congressman and presidential candidate for La Libertad Avanza Javier Milei (centre) greets supporters during a campaign rally on 16 October 2023, in Lomas de Zamora, Buenos Aires province, Argentina. (Luis Robayo/AFP)
Argentine congressman and presidential candidate for La Libertad Avanza Javier Milei (centre) greets supporters during a campaign rally on 16 October 2023, in Lomas de Zamora, Buenos Aires province, Argentina. (Luis Robayo/AFP)

Earlier this year on the occasion of the 40th anniversary (1983-2023) of the return of democracy in Argentina, Milei denied the claims of systematic human rights violations during the military dictatorship.

But after the primary election, he said that he was “willing to turn the page and fight Kirchnerism”, adding that the country was “facing a criminal organisation that won’t stop committing atrocities to stay in power”. 

While Milei can choose not to hold the military dictatorship accountable for its rule from 1976 to 1983, he cannot disregard the assassination of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman, whose death sparked widespread protests in early 2015.

The incident began when a van filled with explosives exploded outside a Jewish community centre in the capital Buenos Aires on 18 July 1994, killing 85 people and injuring over 200, most of whom were Jews. 

March in 2015 for Justice for Nisman and the AMIA bombing
People protest the assassination of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015. (Photo: Jaluj/Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nisman had accused former President Cristina Kirchner, who was incumbent president at the time of the incident, of being involved and obstructing the investigation. But he was assassinated on 18 January 2015, a day before he was scheduled to present his report to Congress. If this case fails to be adjudicated during Milei’s rule, he will lose the chance to uphold transitional justice.  

The emergence of Milei stems this wave of the pink tide, and his economist background meets the needs of the people who are disappointed in the traditional left-right political parties...

Regional: stemming the pink tide 

In the last five years, left-wing politicians in Latin America have been elected as president in four countries: Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on 1 December 2018, Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, a former left-wing guerilla member, in August 2022, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric in March 2022, and lastly, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva in January 2023. 

Indeed, it is a new peak for leftists’ comeback. For the first time ever, the top five economies in Latin America are controlled by left-wing governments. The emergence of Milei stems this wave of the pink tide, and his economist background meets the needs of the people who are disappointed in the traditional left-right political parties — his image as the “saviour” satisfies the demands of a large portion of the people facing a declining economy.  

In May, the US-based Council on Foreign Relations’ Backgrounder described the Mercosur, or the Southern Common Market, as South America’s fractious trade bloc. One key reason is internal division. Milei has stated that he would weaken ties with Mercosur and turn towards other countries as well as free trade agreements, adopting a similar policy as Uruguay’s President Luis Lacalle Pou. 

Milei’s foreign policy seeks to build ties with the “free world”, and to avoid contact with “communist” countries such as China. After the primaries, Milei stated that he would freeze official trade relations with China.

Uruguay's President Luis Lacalle Pou gestures as he takes part in a forum on 15 March 2023. (Pablo Porciuncula/AFP)
Uruguay's President Luis Lacalle Pou gestures as he takes part in a forum on 15 March 2023. (Pablo Porciuncula/AFP)

On 24 October, in a joint statement on establishing comprehensive strategic partnership, the presidents of China and Uruguay reaffirmed the content of the October 2016 joint statement on strategic partnership. Both sides also highlighted the successful completion of the joint feasibility study on the China-Uruguay free trade agreement, and reiterated their commitment to advancing their free trade partnership. It seems that Mercosur’s future would be even more unpredictable.     

Global: what direction would China-Latin America relations go?

Milei’s foreign policy seeks to build ties with the “free world”, and to avoid contact with “communist” countries such as China. After the primaries, Milei stated that he would freeze official trade relations with China. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded by inviting Milei to “come to China and see the country for himself”, to change his view on China’s freedom and safety. 

Milei should understand that China is not only Argentina’s second largest trade partner, but it also provides Argentina’s central bank with a US$18 billion swap line to pay back its IMF debt. Moreover, Argentina’s economy is reliant on agriculture and animal husbandry, putting it in competition against the US. Argentina should increase cooperation with Brazil to boost the competitive strength of both countries’ agricultural products, and expand their share in the Chinese and international markets. 

Milei once expressed that former President Mauricio Macri “would have an outstanding role as Argentina's representative”. He said, “[Macri] would be a figure above the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and others... a representative of the country, I do not know how to define it, the figure would have to be created, but I think he is someone who can open markets.” 

This is indeed favourable for China. Macri attended the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in 2017; and after the G20 summit in 2018, China and Argentina signed more than 30 economic cooperation agreements encompassing various fields such as agriculture and investment. These were the precursors to the 6 February 2022 agreements that President Alberto Fernandez signed with China: the Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation within the Framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative; and the joint statement on deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries. 

Milei should recognise that a strong China-Argentina relationship is beneficial for both sides, while a split is detrimental for both.

Argentina's President-elect Javier Milei waves during a session at the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires on 29 November 2023, where he is officially declared the winners of the runoff election. (Juan Mabromata/AFP)
Argentina's President-elect Javier Milei waves during a session at the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires on 29 November 2023, where he is officially declared the winners of the runoff election. (Juan Mabromata/AFP)

On 21 November, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Javier Milei and expressed hopes to “continue the China-Argentina friendship, boost the development and revitalization of their respective countries through win-win cooperation, and promote the steady and sustained growth of China-Argentina relations to the greater benefit of the two peoples”. 

Milei should recognise that a strong China-Argentina relationship is beneficial for both sides, while a split is detrimental for both. Based on Argentina’s history of a lack of international credibility, people are seemingly only cautious and not optimistic about Milei’s prospects in governance.

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