(Bloomberg) -- Argentina’s presidential frontrunner Javier Milei would freeze relations with China and pull South America’s second-biggest economy out of the Mercosur trade bloc with Brazil, foreign policy proposals that are as radical as his economics.
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In an interview following his unexpected primary victory on Aug. 13, the outsider candidate has given international policymakers the biggest insight yet in how he would conduct Argentina’s affairs on the world stage.
“People are not free in China, they can’t do what they want and when they do it, they get killed,” he told Bloomberg News on Wednesday, referring to Beijing’s government. “Would you trade with an assassin?”
President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party typically silences dissidents with lengthy prison sentences and has been accused of detaining more than 1 million mostly Uyghurs in camps in its Xinjiang region. The US has dubbed that campaign a genocide, while Beijing calls the facilities vocational training centers.
China has also been accused of kidnapping a handful of people from overseas territories including Thailand, but unlike Russia has not faced credible accusations of assassinations.
Milei shook Argentina’s political establishment last weekend after receiving more votes than a pro-business opposition bloc and the ruling Peronist coalition, putting him in the lead to be the country’s next president. His election in October would generate shock waves across a region largely ruled by leftist leaders.
In his blanket refusal to do any kind of business with “socialists,” he lumped Communist China in the same category as Argentina’s biggest trade partner, Brazil, led by leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. China is the second-largest buyer of Argentine exports and provides a crucial $18 billion swap line with the central bank that’s being used to pay the International Monetary Fund.
Brazil’s foreign affairs ministry didn’t immediately comment on Milei’s remarks and calls put to China’s Embassy in Buenos Aires went unanswered. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing in Beijing on Thursday that if the candidate visited “he would have a completely different conclusion as to the freedom and security in China.”
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A breakdown in relations with China could be damaging for Argentina — the central bank in Buenos Aires has been increasingly reliant on the currency swap to support the peso, with the government last month using yuan to repay some of the money it owes the IMF, amid a dwindling greenback supply.
Argentina could also see its existing trade deficit with China widen if Beijing decided to treat the South American nation like Australia, and stop buying its meat and other food products amid souring relations.
Milei described his foreign policy proposals as a global “fight against socialists and statists,” and revealed that he would appoint Diana Mondino, a trusted economic adviser, to be his top diplomat. She’s a former Standard & Poor’s director for Argentina and is running for Congress.
It’s not the first time a prominent Argentine politician has insulted China: In 2015, then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner caused a furor by mocking the Chinese accent in a tweet. Her comments came while she was on a state visit to China seeking investment.
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Milei later appeared to at least partly soften his outspoken comments, clarifying he’d deem it up to the private sector to decide whether to maintain commercial ties with China, and other countries with leaders that he dislikes.
“I don’t have to get involved, but I won’t promote ties with those who don’t respect freedom,” he said, adding that he’d respect deals already signed in Argentina by Chinese companies, which include a contract to build twin dams in Patagonia and an agreement to set up a nuclear plant.
The biggest geopolitical beneficiary of Milei’s ideology would clearly be the US. He was adamant he would work with any president elected in 2024, regardless of their political stripes, though he has a preference for a conservative.
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Donald Trump is now ahead in the polls to secure the Republican nomination but Milei isn’t especially keen on being oft-compared to the former American president. Asked if he would like Trump to return to the White House, he said cautiously: “That’s up for Americans to decide.”
“I may like the profile of Republicans better than that of Democrats, but that doesn’t mean I don’t consider the US as our big strategic partner,” he said.
At the same time, he’s put Lula, Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Chile’s Gabriel Boric and Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, the leftists who run Latin America’s top economies, on guard. Asked about how his relations with them would be, he said: “I don’t have socialist partners.” He described his relationship with Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, as “excellent.”
Milei was disparaging of the trade alliance that Argentina founded with Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay more than three decades ago. The group, beset by internal divisions, has struggled to implement a free-trade deal with the European Union agreed four years ago.
“Mercosur is a customs union of poor quality that creates trade distortions and hurts its members,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, Milei was equally critical of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, who he called a “dictator,” as well as the governments of Nicaragua, Cuba, North Korea and Russia. Argentina would again condemn Venezuela for its violation of human rights if he is picked president, Milei said, returning to the hard-line policy the country had until 2019 with President Mauricio Macri.
--With assistance from Simone Iglesias, Patrick Gillespie, Jonathan Gilbert, Philip Glamann and Colum Murphy.
(Updates with Chinese Foreign Ministry comment.)
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