Sabino Vaca Narvaja: ‘The treatment given Massa was first-class, as if he were a head of state’
Sabino Vaca Narvaja, Argentina’s ambassador to China, on bilateral relations with Beijing, why trade ties must be deepened and the need to rethink the Foreign Ministry and our approach to the East.
Sabino Vaca Narvaja is Argentina’s ambassador to China. A “sinologist,” as defined by President Alberto Fernández, who appointed him to the post via a decree expiring in November, he insists on policies to boost the bilateral trade relationship, betting on the economies of Argentina and the Asian giant being complementary.
He further highlights the success of Sergio Massa’s recent tour of China and the need to rethink the Foreign Ministry in the light of a world that is already changing.
Some weeks have gone by since the visit of the Argentine delegation to China. What balance do you draw from the results?
We are still feeling the repercussions of the trip to China as highly positive. Argentina has three mechanisms in its links with China, one is the “Comixta,” where a Chinese Trade Ministry committee works with Argentine Foreign Ministry trade experts, then there is the political dialogue at the level of the Foreign ministers and thirdly, the strategic dialogue for economic coordination and cooperation, which is also performed by the Argentine Foreign Ministry via the National Committee for Development and Reform. During our government those three mechanisms were also set in motion within such a complex situation as the pandemic, often via Zoom, with many things falling into place in the first trip made by President Alberto Fernández in 2022, in the framework of the Winter Olympics in China, where Argentina took a very important step, which was adhesion to the memorandum of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s plan for infrastructure. But not just infrastructure because this year – and that is why I highlight the importance of the visit headed by [Economy Minister Sergio] Massa – we signed the plan of cooperation. That is a step going beyond signing adhesion and that would be the road map, the main bilateral instrument between both countries, which is why I highlighted the three instruments established and that is why I consider this visit to be a new milestone within the framework of the bilateral relations between Argentina and China.
We might recall that in 2004 we had a strategic association signed by then-presidents Néstor Kirchner and Hu Jintao. Afterwards an Integral Strategic Association was signed in 2014 by then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Xi Jinping, who was already Chinese president. The next foundational step came in 2022, with the visit of Alberto Fernández and adhesion to the memorandum. This year the plan of cooperation, which is the road map between the two countries, has been signed. Over 150 countries have already adhered to this (Belt and Road) Initiative but less than half have signed the plan of cooperation. The repercussions continue to reverberate from this visit, which was very high-level, not just because it was headed by our economy minister but also because Congress Speaker Cecilia Moreau along with other deputies such as Máximo Kirchner formed part of the mission. But as defined by China, Cecilia Moreau ranks third in the institutional hierarchy, leading us to josh that in Chinese eyes the head of the delegation was Cecilia and indeed she had a very important bilateral meeting with Zhao Leji, Speaker of the Chinese National Popular Assembly who also ranks third in the Chinese government. The delegation was attended by President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Qiang and Zhao Leji.
The repercussions continue because in this visit the most important bilateral instrument between our two countries, the Cooperation Plan of the Belt and Road [Initiative] was signed, recalling that last year, in the framework of the presidential visit for the Winter Olympics, Argentina adhered to the Belt and Road Initiative whereas now the cooperation plan has already been signed, a road map involving over 13 sectors quite apart from infrastructure. Today this is the most important instrument for the bilateral relationship and I would like to underline that of all the Latin American countries incorporated into the Belt and Road [Initiative], we are the second to sign the cooperation plan. That is why in political terms the most important high-level visit was last month.
How important will the result be of incorporating Argentina into BRICS?
That request was also formally made by the President in the framework of the summit of BRICS political parties held virtually in China under the Chinese presidency. President Xi Jinping invited President Alberto Fernández to participate in the capacity of his presidency of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States [CELAC, in its Spanish acronym], an organisation to which China attaches much importance. There the President ratified Argentina’s position of seeking formal incorporation into not only BRICS but also the New Development Bank of BRICS, which is a chapter apart.
The truth is that if you look at the countries making up that geopolitical grouping, they consist of Brazil and China, our two leading trade partners, followed by India, Russia and South Africa, who are also trade heavyweights. First and foremost, Argentina forming part of this group is already very important because it incorporates the main or potentially leading trade partners of Argentina. Then if you look at the characteristics of the countries forming this grouping, they are all populous emerging countries with great reserves and a huge capacity for scientific and technological training. In other words, mining reserves and what are considered to be strategic assets linked to natural resources but also technological development. That seems to me highly important and that is why I believe Argentina must accelerate this process of joining BRICS and also its bank. The most important thing is that since they are all emerging countries, they have a shared vision with regard to the dynamics in multilateral organisations, namely to struggle for a more balanced and harmonious world without hegemonies imposing conditions and in general a shared multilateralism and the option of world where the financial schemes or the economic architecture are not geared to a speculative financial system but towards productive development, as is the spirit of the New Development Bank.
The potential from Argentina forming part of this geopolitical grouping is enormous because they are already important trade partners of Argentina, as I was saying, and also for their role in the world economy as its most dynamic group of countries.
During her recent visit to Argentina, [US general] Laura Richardson conveyed the concern of the United States regarding the military cooperation between Argentina and China, for example, the purchase of fighters as well as the access to strategic natural resources such as water, lithium and oil. What is China’s perspective on the US role in Latin America and its capacity to reduce South America’s relations with China?
China never takes a stance of intervening with third countries. Their international dynamics are far removed from suggesting or objecting to the alliances which Argentina might have as a sovereign country whose relations are always linked to its interests. In this sense China stays apart from cyclical dynamics or the statements which each country makes with respect to its sovereign attributes – in this case decisions taken by Argentina which are linked to cooperation in different sectors, as obviously in the sector of national security or defence and, of course, the development of its investments related to mining, for example. That is not something on which China passes comment when there are expressions of this kind, above all where third countries are concerned.
Is the purchase of fighters on a par with Huawei 5G technology?
You have touched upon two different but interesting issues, both also connected to technology.
With respect to the cooperation in the acquisition of aircraft, firstly, that is an attribute of the Defence Ministry which is carrying out a process of research and development as to the type of aviation material it seeks to acquire, as well as an administrative process which has been going on for a while now, complying with multiple steps, because it’s not just the Chinese planes but various options subject to detailed study and research. In fact, in China, the pilots were in a city called Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, trying out these fighters with positive results and there are encouraging reports with regard to their acquisition but that is also an ongoing study and, of course, an attribute of the Defence Ministry which has to evaluate a whole bunch of technical questions. There are so many planes but advances have been communicated officially by our Defence Ministry under Jorge Taiana with positive technical information respecting the Chinese aircraft but it is work in progress. The final definition must be taken by the Defence Ministry and, of course, the Argentine government.
What would interest me to explain with regard to this issue is the impossibility faced by Argentina with respect to the technological blockade linked to the acquisition of defence components imposed by Britain, also linked to Malvinas sovereignty claims. That blockade has prevented not only this government but also others from acquiring aircraft with British technological components. At one point we wished to advance with the purchase of planes from South Korea, I believe, and it had to be stopped due to this blockade. Cabinet Chief Agustín Rossi recently explained this very well with respect to the purchase of French aircraft and since this blockade of a component makes flight difficult, those planes could not even be used. When analysing the acquisition of aircraft, it is highly important for these technological blockades not to be present because afterwards there appear these cases of buying aircraft which cannot be used precisely because of their components. This is, of course, also linked to the weaponry systems offered by each of the planes but these are highly technical questions for the Defence Ministry with research and development and advances in technical reports which have been positive in principle but which remain a development still in progress. I don’t know when this decision will be taken but there are advances.
And with respect to the telecommunications, 5G is another interesting issue because, as I have explained in some articles, one talks of China’s 5G or Huawei, but when it was 1G, 2G, 3G, or 4G, nobody attached a nationality to it, as also happened with vaccines at the time. At other times when 4G or 3G were headed by companies linked to other countries, there was no problem and now the negative aspect of this 5G technology is that it is led by a Chinese company, Huawei. What I have to say with respect to that is that the truth is that technology is neither good nor bad but has to do with how it is used by each government and each country. 5G is fundamental for what many analysts call the fourth industrial revolution because it has to do with the speed of communication and the applicability to the industrial processes of all this telecommunications technology. With respect to Argentina, 5G is not a decision of the government but of the cable operators who are the ones who pick the technology which provides the best service to people and, of course, industry. What the Argentine government does is to regulate the spectrum but then the decision of which technology or what level of technology to buy from which company belongs in Argentina to the cable operators.
You wrote an article ‘The Thucydides trap.’ It was an article in The Economist article which placed Thucydides on the agenda and it was also in an interview with the same magazine that Henry Kissinger anticipates an armed conflict on a global scale between China and the United States. What do you think of Henry Kissinger’s forecast?
That prognosis stems from what is called the trap of Thucydides, who was a Greek historian chronicling the Peloponnesian war, where he describes how Sparta’s misgivings over the rise of Athens ended up in a preventive war. Political scientists and analysts have picked this up to coin the concept of the Thucydides trap, whereby when one power sees another disputing its hegemony, this tends to end up in conflict.
I believe that this is a category which is difficult to apply to China because it is a power which has demonstrated great responsibility on the international stage with a very pacifistic cosmovision. If we look back at China over the millennia, it is not just the People’s Republic of China which has always tended to focus on its own territory. It has never had colonial pretensions but quite the reverse, suffering colonialism, so that it has no expansionist visions attached to its development as a power. China’s most potent symbol is the Great Wall which is defensive. The Chinese discovered gunpowder and used it for fireworks – it was only much later that the West applied it to armaments. So China’s general philosophy and what it is proposing internationally to the world is precisely to scale down conflicts, not revert to Cold War ideas. So it seems to me that taking these concepts as a Cold War or bellicose is erroneous because China has a different philosophy with Confucianism, Taoism or Buddhism very much present and all having peace as a central element and against war. It is a new power with another outlook on international relations centred on cooperation, not confrontation, or that at least is how it has shown itself in its dynamics and within multilateral organisations. I am sure that if it were up to China, it would not want that kind of confrontation or escalation which is coming out of the United States but quite the contrary. China continues to be one of the principal bondholders of the US Treasury with a wide range of companies and commercial ties with the United States, not wanting to escalate this situation for anything in the world. One interesting commentary being put forward by many US intellectuals, since you named Kissinger, is that in some way he was responsible for China’s development via the so-called ‘ping pong diplomacy’ of [Richard] Nixon, that major rapprochement between China and the United States so that many analysts posit that this development and transfer of US technology to China was one of the elements transforming it into a power together, of course, with Germany who also transferred a lot of technology with China, but that is one criticism of Kissinger. There is an old but well-known book, On China, where Kissinger also develops all these concepts.
For Thucydides, human conduct is affected by three passions: egoism, pride and, above all, fear. All three drive people to accumulate wealth and power, which places them on a collision course with other individuals driven by the same desires. How is the relationship of the Chinese with egoism, pride and fear?
I was recently telling you about this profound philosophical base in a culture dating back millennia with a component linked to an interesting collective spirit. That’s why I say that when dealing with China, you always have to be careful with the more Western conceptual categories. You need to study in depth and it seems to me that China has always deployed a very cooperative spirit at international level. It has no major wars or confrontations, being in general self-obsessed. The word “China” consists of two ideograms: “middle” and “territory or nation,” or rather the old Middle Kingdom when they already felt themselves to be a totality in themselves. Indeed in dynastic history there are cases such as Admiral Zheng He, who almost sailed around the world 70-80 years before the Portuguese, according to some academics, without the least intention of evangelising or colonising. So you have to understand that spirit of a China dating back millennia and also the more humanistic (if you like) spirit of the Chinese Communist Party and the cooperative nature of its development. The proposals being made by China in the framework of the international community are headed by Xi Jinping’s idea of the shared destiny of humanity. This is a philosophical way of saying: ‘Either we all save ourselves together or we don’t.’ Both the pandemic and the crisis situations we are experiencing demonstrated that clearly. The essentially cooperative theme is profoundly present with the Belt and Road initiatives extremely cooperative in working with each country. This initiative for global development, security and civilization has this same spirit of proposing that humanity has to work together to face the problems. These, of course, have plenty to do with environmental issues where China is pretty busy, setting guidelines like, for example, the eradication of carbon emissions by the year 2060. But this is the philosophy which I believe must be analysed in order to understand China’s behaviour on the international stage. It seems to me that recurrence to categories more embedded in our countries is an error and you have to take into account philosophical currents with Asian roots, such as Confucianism, Taoism or Buddhism itself. Even the writer Sun Tzu with his The Art of War proposes that military technology and strategy should be studied basically to prevent conflicts. The philosophies which these currents propose thus take conflict or war as something negative.
On one point there is friction beyond any discussion: Taiwan, with US ships entering the South China Sea and the visit of the Congress Speaker creating military tension between the United States and China. How do you imagine the issue of Taiwan being resolved and how do you imagine Taiwan in the year 2050?
Of course, that is an essential constitutional element for China, the principle of one China. That is interesting because almost the entirety of the countries in the United Nations recognise the One China principle, including Argentina and, of course, the United States. Most recently Honduras, for example, like many Central American countries, has decided to recognise China and the principle of one China with their President Xiomara [Castro] visiting China. Many media spoke of the US pressure against this happening but this is pretty contradictory because within the UN framework the United States recognises and respects the principle of one China. But, of course, these kinds of tension which you rightly comment on, like [US Congress Speaker] Nancy Pelosi, complicate the issue considerably.
I would say that it is the most conflictive issue because its nature is precisely the Chinese claim to territorial integrity. In this sense it is very similar to our Malvinas sovereignty claims based on the principle of territorial integrity so that we keep each other company in all multilateral organisations. And I hope that the future of China with respect to its claims of sovereignty and territorial integrity is similar to ours and that your date  will find us, by peaceful means, of course, as are being pursued by both China and Argentina, with our territories totally integrated. Indeed regarding the conflict in Ukraine, China never recognised the [Russian] annexation of Crimea and also takes an important stance on Ukraine with the principle of territorial integrity as the essential element of its foreign policy, which in this sense is shared by Argentina. I believe that in the future, viewing the prospects for 2050, this reunification will be found because this is the spirit of China and obviously many countries like Argentina also wish us the same for our claims of territorial integrity.
Should the emergence of China as a world power modify the perspective of how Argentine international relations should be organised? Is the focus of our Foreign Ministry structured around how the world was thought to be early last century?
Absolutely. I’m convinced, and I say it everywhere I can, but I also work on designing public policies. Indeed while we have been here we have opened up a new consulate in the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu in western China, a developing region. That would be our fifth consulate and counting. That Belt and Road Initiative programme for infrastructure launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 aimed at Eurasian integration and hence gave great importance to Western China. Afterwards in 2015, it was expanded to Africa and Oceanía and only in 2017 did it incorporate Latin America as the natural maritime route of the ancient Silk Road, thus ending up forming a project of global cooperation heavily anchored on infrastructure.
But it is fundamental to think of a change in outlook and creating a different institutional design at our Foreign Ministry. I’ll give you some concrete examples of how we look to a world which no longer exists, a Eurocentric world. For example, we have 30 embassies in Europe and only 15 in Asia. It’s easy to say where our complementary interests lie and where the most dynamic economies in today’s world are located. We are thus underrepresented in this region. I understand the historical and political relations with Europe but we also have to put our concrete interests to work and our possibilities of expanding not only our export capacity but also our overall development because these powers generate a great deal of technology transfer. At our Foreign Ministry, the Directorate handling China incorporates it into Asia and Oceanía with China just another country within that structure whereas we have a Directorate almost exclusively for the United States. I believe this institutional redesign to be fundamental for improving Argentina’s inland and productive capacities. We always say how important administration is when evaluating budget issues. Here in this Embassy we have exactly half the number of local employees and diplomats as our Brazilian and US Embassies and almost as many or less than for Spain, France or Germany when the upper middle-class sectors in China number almost 400 million people and is the motor for the consumer market par excellence of today’s world with a projection of reaching 800 [million] in 10 years. That is the future of the commercial dynamics going beyond the governments in a pragmatic reading.
Look at how Chile’s relationship with China advanced with [former rightist president Sebastián] Piñera or nowadays with Uruguay’s [centre-right Luis] Lacalle Pou or Ecuador’s with [conservative leader Guillermo] Lasso. Taking away all ideological issues, I think that we as a country owe ourselves an in-depth discussion in organisational and institutional terms to advance with structural changes to modify this situación. A diplomat who comes here to the Embassy in Beijing is moving to a destination placed in ‘C’ category, the lowest of the three, where he stays for just two years before trying for an ‘A’ destination. Imagine how little time this gives an ambassador before he has to overhaul half his career diplomats with all that is implied in getting to know China, becoming accustomed to its norms and language and starting to understand a bit how Chinese dynamics function. So I think that the state loses a great deal. The Foreign Ministry is also working to modify this but we have our work cut out not only with our government and our front but also with the opposition, working towards a structured long-term outlook.
I always say that only for China or other Asian countries like, for example, Vietnam, which gives Argentina a big trade surplus and where our embassy has almost the same number of employees as in Denmark, which has announced that it is going to close down its Embassy in Argentina due to the low intensity. So those are things upon which to reflect where I think we have to change our logic in order to improve not only our export capacity but also the internal productive development of Argentina by linking up with countries whose complementary economies permit this advance.
Production: Melody Acosta Rizza & Sol Bacigalupo.