China-Argentina: A new core-periphery relationship

Raul Bernal-Meza

The core-periphery relationship and economic development

Prebisch argued a tendency towards deteriorating terms of trade between primary goods and manufactured goods because growth in productivity of manufacturing production is higher than in the case of primaiy products. This kind of situation is the one that Latin America suffers in its relations with China. To identify the two opposite but complementary segments of the world political economy, development and underdevelopment, after the Second World War, economic and political historians came to call the relationship “North-South”, in the framework of the discussions on the development in the United Nations. But these axes were modified in the last decade of the 20th century. Pieterse calls attention to an "East- South” turn in the global system as economic power has increasingly shifted towards Asia and the Global South.1

In 30 years, China has become a central player in the world economy, in the international economic relations of Latin America and Argentina. This fact highlights the high economic development achieved by China and the difficulties of Latin American countries to reduce their backwardness and dependence on the most dynamic economies of world capitalism. Historically, there was little interaction between China and Latin America, because relations were between peripheral countries with a low industrialization and development level. However, this situation changed drastically as Chinese modernization grew and Latin America became a “function”2 of Chinese development. Comparatively, by 1990 China was a country of little relevance in the international economic insertion of Latin America. Behind the United States, the European Union and, even Japan, China was less important in the Latin American trade than South Korea or Taiwan. However, over the next 20 years, the PRC became the core of a new core-periphery relationship for Latin America, giving rise to a new period of deterioration in terms of Latin American trade and causing a huge challenge to the development possibilities of Latin America. This negative situation was achieved by complementing two paths: the effects of the deterioration of the terms of trade and the effect of the primarization3 and reprimarization of Latin American economies, since specialization prevents productive modernization.

China represents for Argentina and Latin America the example of a “clash of modernizations”, between its successful authoritarian modernization export- oriented model and the unfinished effort of Latin America to modernize in democracy,4 under impoi-t substitution industrialization model. The Chinese economy has increased its role in the region. It can greatly affect modernization objectives, deepening the specialization patterns of the Latin American countries and placing limits on the role of Mercosur as a platform for productive transformation and of expansion of dynamic comparative advantages, both inwards and outwards of the region.5 The sustained growth of the economic-commercial and financial relationship with Latin America, with positive returns for China, brings political cei-tainty, while its Latin American partner pays its own impoxts and its indebtedness to China with its primary exports. A trap that threatens the autonomy and development of the Latin American productive system due to the high primary specialization, against China, including industrialized economies such as those in Brazil and Argentina.6

1 The beginning of the Sino-Argentinean relationship

Argentina’s strategy to make China one of its main international partners began with the government of President Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), when he signed a Strategic Partnership agreement with China in 2004. From then on, Beijing would have an increasing weight in Argentina’s international economic relations. This process was deepened under the two governments of his successor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (2007-2015), during that time China consolidated itself as Argentina’s second-largest trading paxtner, after Brazil, and its main foreign investor. This stage had two situations that would mark the evolution of bilateral relations: (1) Nestor Kirchner’s political decision to break off his relations with the IMF, cancelling the coimnitted debt with the organization and thus avoiding what Buenos Aires considered to be interference by the IMF in its internal affairs and (2) Cristina Fernandez’s decision to harden her international discourse against the United States, as links with Venezuela were also strengthened. China became the main power of economic dialogue, while the deterioration of Argentina’s relations with the United States and the countries of the European Union deepened.7 These two decisions decisively influenced the foreign investment policies in Argentina, not only of the United States but also of its European partners, who also abandoned their financial and borrowing interests in Buenos Aires. This place would be progressively occupied by China.

2 Evolution and current state of Sino-Argentina relations

Argentina, despite the fact that at the time relations with China began, it was part of the “semi-periphery” of the world economic system; thanks to its socioeconomic and industrial development, the process has been similar to that of the rest of Latin America. Why did Argentina, being a semi-peripheral country, follow the same path of primary specialization as any other peripheral state? The answer must be sought in the analysis of the failure of Argentina’s model of economic insertion and to confront this with the success of China's model of insertion.

Bilateral trade between China and Argentina began in the 1960s with occasional purchases of Argentina wheat. From 1972 onwards, trade relations took a more stable course. In 2002, Argentina exports to China exceeded US$1 billion, while Chinese exports to Argentina reached only USS330 million. By 2011, the change had been geometric: Chinese exports reached over US$10 billion, while Argentina exports were just over US$6 billion. By 2012 Chinese exports had remained constant, while Argentina exports had fallen to US$ 1.2 billion.8 Although exports have increased in the last decade, this was due to the increase in Chinese demand and the rise in prices of the commodities exported by Argentina. This negative trend would deepen over the course of the decade (Tables 7.1 and 7.2).

Table 7.1 Main products exported to China in 2016 (FOB US$)


% of the total

Soya beans


Crude petroleum oils


Meat of bovine annuals, boneless, frozen


Whole shrimps and prawns frozen


Chunks and offal of roosters or chickens, frozen


Raw sunflower oil


Deveined or denervated tobacco, in dry leaves


Raw peanut oil


Frozen shrimps and prawns, except whole


Dirty wool, sheared, not carded or combed




Source: Adapted from Salvador Pablo (2017).

Table 7.2 Comparative chart imports from China and exports from Argentina by sector in 2016 (US$ millions)


Imports from China

Argentina's exports

Cars, piston engine and cylinder capacity 1.500-3.000 cm3



Copper ores and concentrates






Other packaged medications



Medium oils and oil preparations



Polyethylene in primary forms



Propane, liquefied



Ethylene polymers in primary forms



Light oils and petroleum preparations



Butanes, liquefied



Source: Adapted from Salvador Pablo (2017).

Since September 2019, China is Argentina’s first trading partner. But exports to that country have been stagnating since 2008, with an increasingly negative trade balance due to imports of industrial products.9 Argentina transferred huge amounts of foreign currency to China through the trade deficit.10 By 2011, Argentina’s overall external debt reached US$144 billion.11 This figure is important because it marks the moment when the financial debt with China begins to grow in importance. As Sevares points out, Argentina-Chinese trade has the most primarized profile of total Argentina trade.12 In 2016, Argentina’s exports to China reached US$4.66 billion.13 The main products exported were crude oil and soybeans, which together accounted for 54.3% of external sales,14 of which US$2.7 billion corresponded to sales of soybeans.15 Of the rest of the agricultural products, sunflower oil (US$84 million), beef (95 million tons), poultry (56 million tons) - products where China is located as the first export destination - and peanuts (US$17 million) - where China occupy the third place as a destination, stand out.16 Imports fell by 11.7% with respect to the previous year.17

The clash of modernizations, technological backwardness and specialization combined to bring Argentina to what Oviedo called “the food paradox”.18 This author wonders why Argentina, being a country that produces food raw materials, benefited by the increase in the world price of agricultural products, transfers between 2008 and 2014 more than U$S24 billion through a trade deficit with China, a country with a growing need to import food. In other words, the logic does not seem to work in Sino-Argentina trade. Trade relations have also been affected by China’s unfair trading practices. In December 2016, the Argentinean Ministry of Production opened in the same day 11 investigations for dumping, positioning itself as the Latin American country with more investigations of China on dumping19 and generating high concern in the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.20

Sevares reports that between 2005 and 2014 Argentina received ten loans from Chinese entities for a total of US$19 billion, which were mostly used to finance infrastructure works and purchase railway material.21 China was the exclusive beneficiary of the provision of goods and inputs. China’s loans and investment initiatives were part of a dense network of bilateral agreements. The bilateral deficit would be increased by currency loans (swaps). China began to play an increasingly relevant role, becoming an important investor and financial lender through the swap system,22 a practice that was continued under the two Peronist governments of Cristina Kirchner and one that Mauricio Macri and Alberto Fernandez have tried to deepen.

According to figures from the IMF database, the value of Argentina’s exports to the Chinese market during the period 2003-2015 reached US$58,907 billion, with a starting point of US$2,483 billion in 2003 and a peak in 2006 of US$6,355 billion.23 While at the end of the second government of Fernandez de Kirchner (2015) exports to China added to US$5,174 billion.24 During the whole period, the PRC escalated from the fifth to the second position as the destination of Argentine exports. PRC’s exports were even more dynamic than Argentina’s. In 2003, Argentina imported only US$720 million from China while at the end of the period, in 2015, the value of imports from China reached US$ 11.742 billion.25

Therefore, between 2003 and 2015, Argentina paid about US$84,285 billion fox- products of Chinese origin, creating a deficit in the trade balance of approximately USS25.378 billion according to IMF trade statistics.26 At the time of political alternation, in 2015, the financial balance showed Argentina transferred US$30,980 billion via the trade deficit to China between 2008 and 2015,27 owing about US$8 billion (plus interest) for the swap agreement and the payment of the loans for investments in railways and infrastructure. Argentina initiated the structural process of dependence with the PRC consolidating a core-periphery scheme in the commercial exchange, which transferred currencies from the periphery to the centre and expanding the bilateral asymmetry.28 President Macri (2015-2019) renewed swaps agreement and closed an agreement to extend it for more than US$10 billion. The agreement is an extension of the existing swap with a total of 70 billion yuan or about US$8.75 billion. The additional loan is equivalent to about 60 billion yuan, or US$10.21 billion, bringing the total to US$18.96 billion.29 Through the annual transfers of dollars to China, the international reserves of the Central Bank of Argentina decreased by US$19 billion between 2008 and 2014.30

Diplomatically, the bilateral relations between Argentina and China suffered a difficult stage, when on 19 January 2010 Cristina Fernandez suspended her announced official trip to China a few days later and for internal policy reasons; a situation that Beijing considered as an offence31 and to which the Asian government responded by practising a realpolitik, radically restricting its soybean imports and suspending indefinitely the imports of soybean oil, transferring to China this industrialization process and the implicit added value.32 It took time for the Cristina Fernandez government to rebuild bilateral relations, although by the end of her term China was already the most important foreign investor and beneficiary of the construction of two hydroelectric dams, an agreement signed by Cristina Fernandez in 2015, which President Macri approved. Macri sought to maintain and consolidate the bilateral strategic paitoership with China, but in a new international context, which while recognizing the importance of China in the new world economy and the place Beijing occupies in Argentina’s international economic relations, he sought to rebuild relations with Washington and with the main nations of the European Union. Macri paid a state visit to China in May 2017. He signed agreements for US$15 billion with Xi Jinping and consolidated the strategic partnership. The new projects included energy investments, financing for the recovery of the San Maxtin train, a food safety protocol and the construction of these two new nuclear power plants.33

Until the loan granted to Buenos Aires by the IMF, under the management of President Macri, for a value ofUS$57 billion,34 China had become the main source of Argentina’s external financing. The impetus for Chinese investments came in 2010, when Chinese state-owned corporations, such as the China Petrochemical Corp. (Sinopec), the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and the China Bank for Industry and Commerce (ICBC), amtounced investments in the country.35 According to Oviedo, three modalities of Chinese investments in Argentina can be observed: through tax havens, FDIs and investments in extra-regional countries with an impact on the region. To these modalities, two forms of loans are added: currency swaps and loans granted for purchases (direct or by tender) of Chinese products, or loans by the State or sub-national institutions (provinces ox- municipalities) with the guarantee of the national State, to carry out infrastructure and sendee works.36 According to ENDEC data, US$30,739 billion were transferred to China alone between 2007 and 2015. In 2015, the bilateral trade deficit amounted to US$6,575 billion, while in 2016 there was a transfer to China of US$5,823 billion. This was the largest deficit recorded by the Macri government with respect to all the countries with which Argentina trades. If we add the year 2016, the accumulated deficit between 2007 and 2016 reached US$36,562 billion, thus creating a “vicious circle” by which China obtained large trade surpluses with Argentina that unbalanced its international reserves and exchange rate, and then China appeared again as a “savior” through currency swaps and capital transfers for bilateral contracts in infrastructure.57

3 Analysis of the structure of Sino-Argentinian relations under an international political economy approach

Argentina has a structure of economic relations with China (trade, investment and loans) under the characteristics of the core-periphery model, whose analysis must be done from an international political economy perspective, which implies a debate on the strategies of insertion in the world economy in the context of deep changes in capitalism. Oviedo maintains that, towards the end of Kirchner's governments, there was a “primarization of soybean” in exports.38 This situation contrasted with a path of “diversified agricultural primarization” that took place towards the end of 2008, in order to reverse the trade balance deficits that began in 2008.

Four reasons that explain the development of this dependency relationship are as follow: [1]

economic rise and active participation, especially in the semi-peripheral areas, was already expected to pose more challenges and restrictions to the development of the most backward countries.43

  • 2 China and Argentina represent two models of capitalist development; the successful expoi-t-oriented Chinese model and the failed impoit-substitution development model of Argentina,44 which like all similar processes in Latin America failed to insert itself efficiently and dynamically into a world economy dominated by scientific and technological development, in which the role of China is increasingly important.45
  • 3 China deeply affected Argentina's model of regional and international integration and insertion - Mercosur, as an economic space for exports of industrial origin - because Beijing became the main trading partner of the members of the bloc. The Chinese economy has increasingly increased its role in the region and can greatly affect modernization objectives, deepening the specialization patterns of the Latin American countries and placing limits on the future role of Mercosur as a platform for productive transformation and of expansion of dynamic comparative advantages, both inwards and outwards of the region.46 Hiratuka points out that “China consolidated itself as the region’s main trading partner as of 2009, but this situation is associated with a typically inter-sectorial flow with very low levels of participation of industrial products in exports, beyond a very high concentration in a few products. By contrast, imports are dominated by more technologically sophisticated products, and the degree of concentration is not as high’’.47 At the same time, China promotes the geographic integration of South America, financing the infrastructure of the bi-oceanic corridors, the processing and export zones, the rail nodes and the construction of tunnels and ports.48
  • 4 The economic relationship between China and Argentina was transformed into the classic and new core-periphery pattern: Classical, because it reproduces the model of insertion of Argentina under the British hegemony in the 19th century and of the North American hegemony in the 20th century. New, because the relationship of economic subordination is developed in a short period of time (between the origin and its consolidation) of less than 20 years that occurs with an economic power that is not yet the economic hegemon at the world level but that has been able to build a core-periphery relationship with two peripheral regions - Latin America and Africa - of which the first includes countries considered as semi-peripheral.49

This situation occurs as a result of the deterioration of the balance of payments, derived from the indebtedness to which leads a permanent situation of deterioration of the terms of trade that is not compensated by an increase in exports due to the absence of a diversified export structure with high added value.50 The structure of economic-commercial relations between China and Latin America is a function of the development of the Chinese economy, that is, in the medium and long term it is and is a function of the advantages and profits of the most dynamic economy, which is the one that captures the income that derives from the accumulation of technical progress that its economy obtains thanks to its industrial development. The paradox is that the Chinese demand for Latin American primary products and commodities (mineral, vegetable, energy and food) harmonizes with the regional productive supply, because Latin America has not managed to overcome the barrier of techno-productive underdevelopment, nor to reach the minimum barrier of take-olf for greater productivity that would allow it to participate in international trade with predominance of industrial exports. Latin American supply is in harmony with Chinese demand. China is a key player in the global economy because its production model stimulates the growth of the rest of the world’s economies by creating a virtuous circuit of investment, production and market, which had an impact on a global scale. The dragging effect also consolidates the economic hegemony of the tractor and creates the dependence of the dragged economies on the driving centre.51


China’s resurgence as one of the key players in the international political and economic order became globally acclaimed as one of the most important events in the history of the modern world. In a way, China is increasingly comparable to the former role of the United States as an “indispensable country”,52 which was transformed as such for Argentina and in general for all Latin American countries.53 As Li Xing points out,

The world system theory developed by Wallerstein54 (. . .) provides a broad theoretical perspective to understand the historical evolutions and changes involved in the rise of the modern capitalist world system. This system expanded over a long historical spectrum and brought different parts of the world into its division of labor, leading to a perpetual condition of economic core-semi periphery-periphery relations.55

The challenge for the Latin American countries, as China is increasingly becoming an essential country for regional economic development, is to transform the dependency relationship of the core-periphery structure into a driving force fox- industrial, scientific and technological development. If China advances along this path, giving a different meaning to the South-South cooperation it has followed up to now, it could transform the South American region into a strategic ally in the Western Hemisphere. The opposite path will lead, inevitably, to the questioning of Chinese policies and the emergence of conflicts. From this perspective, China will not be able to detach from the historical label of neo-colonialism that has characterized the relations of the great industrial powers with the rest of the world in the last two cenmries.56

First trade, then investments and finally loans, coincide in the cycle of the relationship of our region with what was its main trading paxlner in the 20th century, the United States, and previously with the British cycle, during the 19th century. The three cycles have reproduced the same pattern of exchange that has characterized trade between some backward economies, most of them primary exporters, even though there are three - Brazil, Mexico and Argentina - that at the beginning of the Chinese cycle (1990) were in the industrialization phase. China is a developed economy that provides primary economies with manufactured and capital goods, as well as direct investment and financing to the public and private sectors. With these three sectors of the economy and supported by them, China has constructed a new pattern of international trade specialization in Latin America: a structure characterized, on the Latin American side, by specialization in primary exports, in those economies with still weak industrialization; the reprimerization of industrialized economies (Brazil, Mexico and Argentina) and the substitution of manufactured exports to third markets by Chinese industrial products. This process of “primarization” and “reprimarization” of Latin American economies was strengthened and began to consolidate through the process of direct investment. As some authors have pointed out, investment policy follows financial planning directed from the highest levels of Chinese power and forms part of the strategy of reforming and expanding financing abroad and the deployment of Chinese banks abroad.57

Three arguments are closely related, and each is discussed and supported in extensive research literature. The first is that China has built with its periphery, in this case Latin America, a structure of economic relations characterized as development-underdevelopment and core-periphery, which although in the short term has benefited LAC countries, by the possibility of maintaining and increasing exports of primary products, is beneficial to China because it provides for its needs and allows it to maintain a favourable trade balance (with the exceptions of Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and Peru). The second is that this structure is a function of China’s economic development and allows it to solve its domestic production deficit. The third is that this structure of economic relations, through trade, investment and loans, reproduces the characteristics of the British and North American hegemonic cycles in their relationship with Latin America and that this situation affects the image that China wants to present to the international community. In response, China has applied a public diplomacy in its foreign policy that uses images and rhetoric that do not correspond to the reality of these relations. China has developed a public policy strategy that supports a “win-win” rhetoric in its economic relations with Latin America.5S However, despite the supposed complementarity between exports and imports, Prebisch’s analysis in the late 1940s remains fully valid today.

The relationship between China and Argentina is framed in two contexts: the accelerated process of articulation and economic presence of Beijing in Latin America in general, from which the South American country did not escape, and the search of new coimnercial partners for its agricultural exports, by the Argentina govermnents. The currency swap was propitious to stabilize the scarce international reserves and the exchange rate in Argentina until the 2015 elections. The “thirst” for foreign currency is allocated to the trade imbalance, which is mainly due to fuel imports. While this cause is correct, it can also be said to have its origin in the annual trade deficits started with China in 2008, in addition to the chronic deficit balances that Argentina has with the United States and Brazil. The enormous difference in the level of scientific and technological progress, translated into an accelerated and surprising process of industrialization, has deepened the differences in the levels of development between both countries. Thus, despite the economic difficulties discussed, China has become an increasingly indispensable partner for Argentina.


  • 1 Pieterse (2011).
  • 2 In the sense of the role that these relationships play within Chinese capitalist development.
  • 3 Primarization refers to countries that did not enter modernization or industrialization processes. Reprimarization refers to countries that had already entered the process of industrialization, such as Brazil, Argentina and Mexico - called semi-peripheral - but which began to return to the previous phase of economic backwardness. See also Chapter 4 of this book by Defraigne and Villalobos.
  • 4 Oviedo (2012b, 2012a).
  • 5 See Hiratura (2016); Beckerman and Moncaut (2016).
  • 6 CEPAL (2018).
  • 7 Russell (2010); Simonoff (2010).
  • 8 Guelar (2013:174).
  • 9 Sevares (2015:136).
  • 10 Oviedo (2016).
  • 11 Smink (2011).
  • 12 Sevares (2015:129).
  • 13 Indec (2018:19).
  • 14 Idem, p. 15.
  • 15 Ministerio de Agroindustria (2020).
  • 16 Idem.
  • 17 Indec (2018:15).
  • 18 Oviedo (2016:275).
  • 19 Oviedo (2017b:30-31).
  • 20 PRC MOFCOM (2016).
  • 21 Sevares (2016).
  • 22 A swap is a mechanism by which two agents (governments, banks, companies) commit to exchange currency or money on certain dates. The operation is not carried out immediately but in “installments”, that is, amounts and dates throughout an agreed period. In October 2014, Argentina negotiated a credit in Chinese Yuan equivalent to USS11 billion. This does not mean that said amount has entered instantaneously into the local economy, but rather that the Central Bank of the Argentine Republic incorporated these currencies progressively according to domestic needs, see Lilo (2015).
  • 23 IMF database (
  • 24 Idem.
  • 25 Idem.
  • 26 Author’s calculation based on IMF database figures.
  • 27 Idem.
  • 28 Bernal-Meza and Zanabria (2020).
  • 29 Franco (2018).
  • 30 Oviedo (2016:276).
  • 31 Bernal-Meza (2012a, 2012b).
  • 32 Eduardo D. Oviedo is convinced that the Chinese government’s decision to transfer to its companies the benefit of the added value of processing soybeans into soybean oil had been taken by the Chinese government before this incident, see Oviedo (2012a).
  • 33 Infobae (2017); Fioriti (2017).
  • 34 In June 2018, the IMF granted a loan to Argentina for USS50 billion. In September of the same year, the IMF increased the figure by USS7.1 billion, bringing the total loan to US$57.1 billion.
  • 35 Oviedo (2017a).
  • 36 Oviedo (2017c).
  • 37 Oviedo (2017b:23).
  • 38 Oviedo (2015).
  • 39 Li (2019,2010); Li Minqi (2008).
  • 40 Muchie and Li (2010:53).
  • 41 Li (2012,2012a); Li and Christensen (2012).
  • 42 Arrighi (1997, 1998); Wallerstein (1979).
  • 43 Li (2012,2012a); Li and Christensen (2012a).
  • 44 Li (2020); Oviedo (2012b, 2012c).
  • 45 Dussel Peters (2016); Moneta (2016); Beckerman and Moncaut (2016); Sevares (2015).
  • 46 Hiratura (2016); Beckerman and Moncaut (2016); Oviedo (2016).
  • 47 Hiratuka (2016).
  • 48 Cesarin (2016).
  • 49 Li and Farah (2013); Li and Christensen (2012).
  • 50 Prebisch (1949, 1951).
  • 51 Oviedo (2014, 151).
  • 52 Li (2010).
  • 53 Bemal-Meza (2020); Oviedo (2016); Dussell Peters (2016).
  • 54 Wallerstein (1974, 1979, 1997, 2004).
  • 55 Li (2019).
  • 56 Bemal-Meza and Li (2020).
  • 57 Oviedo (2017); Bernal-Meza (2016); Sevares (2014); Guelar (2013).
  • 58 Bernal-Meza (2016, 2017).


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  • [1] The extraordinary and rapid rise of China in the world economic power structure as a fact without precedent in the history of capitalism.39 According toMuchie and Li, “China’s emergence will, on the one hand, unavoidably generate power shift and shape the international order in new ways, but on theother hand help construct a new type of balance of power in world politicsbased on multilateralism and institutionalism”.40 The fact of moving from theperiphery to the centre in less than 40 years has generated deep transformations in the relations between the centre, the semi-periphery and the periphery.41 This fact becomes a potential source of conflict with the countries thatare lagging behind in the process, particularly those like Argentina that by1970 was already identified internationally as part of the “semi-peripheral”segment of world economy.43 Seen from this perspective, the "centralization”of China is leading to the peripheralization of today’s semi-peripheral countries, replacing their industrial production and export markets. This phenomenon is in line with the points made by authors who argued that China’s
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