Argentina’s entry into the Belt and Road Initiative is a significant advance in Beijing’s bid to strengthen ties with Latin America , according to experts. During a high-profile visit to Beijing last week for the opening of the Winter Olympics, Argentinian President Alberto Fernandez signed his country up for China’s sweeping infrastructure programme, paving the way for investments worth more than US$23 billion. Fernandez was one of the few leaders from South America – considered to be “America’s backyard” – to attend the opening ceremony amid a diplomatic boycott by the United States and other Western countries. Argentina’s signing on to the belt and road programme comes soon after Fernandez announced during a trip to Russia that his country must abandon its economic “dependence” on the US and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Argentina became the first among Latin America’s major economies to join Beijing’s initiative, a platform for Chinese investment in railways, ports and highways worldwide. The two sides pledged closer ties in trade, currency, agriculture, energy and other areas after a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Fernandez on Sunday. Jiang Shixue, a professor and director at the Centre for Latin American Studies at Shanghai University, said the China-Argentina agreement was not only meaningful for bilateral relations but could promote Beijing’s relations with broader Latin America, and other major economies might follow the trend. Before Argentina’s entry, a total of 19 Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries had joined the belt and road scheme, with the notable exceptions of Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia – the region’s biggest economies. “Argentina is a very important country, both in terms of economic aggregate and political influence,” Jiang said. Yue Yunxia, a Latin America specialist at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said negotiations between Argentina and China on the signing of a belt and road memorandum of understanding (MOU) took a long time and the “hard-won” result was meaningful. “As a major Latin American country, Argentina’s entry to the Belt and Road Initiative is of symbolic significance, which is a breakthrough,” Yue was quoted by Chinese media outlet Yicai as saying. More than meets the eye with China’s diplomatic ties in Latin America? President Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador, which cut diplomatic ties with Taipei in December, also met Xi during the Olympics, bringing a memorandum of understanding between the two sides meant to pave the way for a trade deal at the end of the year, as well as fostering economic ties via the initiative. Chinese experts said closer ties between Beijing and South America were rooted in the complementary relationship of their economies, but some major countries in the region had been cautious about relations with China, a country viewed as competing with the US for geopolitical influence in the region. China overtook Brazil as Argentina’s largest trading partner in April, and is a major buyer of Argentinian soybeans and beef. The total trade volume between China and the LAC region hit a record high last year, exceeding US$450 billion, an increase of 41.1 per cent over 2020, meaning Beijing remains Latin America’s second-largest trading partner, according to data released by the General Administration of Customs of China. Dong Jingsheng, vice-director of Latin American studies at Peking University, said big economies in Latin America had been cautious about joining the belt and road, considering their close relations with the US, which regards Beijing as a threat in its backyard. The US considered offering infrastructure projects in Latin America that compete with China’s initiative, according to media reports last year. “Cooperation in all aspects of trade, investment and finance between China and Latin America over the years have increased. It makes the US feel that China has expanded its presence in its traditional backyard and poses some challenges,” Dong said. “But overall our economic presence and impact in Latin America is still a long way from the US.” Dong said the economies of China and Latin American countries were highly complementary. “China is facing shortages of resources in recent years, while Latin America is rich in resources such as oil, as well as agriculture; on the other hand, China’s manufacturing industry is strong, Latin America is a huge market,” Dong said. “No matter how the political situation changes in these countries, they always need to rely on the Chinese market, the influence of the US cannot change the economic basis of cooperation between the two sides.” China steps up Falklands pressure, insists Britain responds to Argentina demand Argentina’s entry into the Belt and Road Initiative comes as Fernandez faces Argentina’s stagnant economy and the debt crises it has been trapped in for years. After Fernandez made the trip to China, Argentina’s government said in a statement the two sides had highlighted the importance of the currency swap between their central banks and agreed to continue “strengthening cooperation” in this regard. Yue Yunxia said their closer ties on currency, “will not only support Argentina’s financial stability but also benefits the internationalisation of the [yuan]”. Both countries hoped to enhance cooperation in matters of green development, the digital economy and the Antarctic .