Guest of honour Argentina still has high hopes of strengthening commercial ties with China at its flagship International Import Exposition (CIIE) in Shanghai from November 5-10 despite a scaled-back presence because of the pandemic.
Endorsed by President Xi Jinping, the CIIE, now in its third edition, is the largest import fair in the world and offers a rare opportunity to place products in the Chinese market. This year, China has been the destination of 11% of Argentina’s exports and the South American country aims to boost sales of beef and other food products.
"China wants more products from Argentina," said Luis Basterra, minister of agriculture, cattle and fishing. "This time, we only need the necessary [products] due to the pandemic."
Until the last minute, President Alberto Fernández and foreign minister Felipe Solá had intended to travel to Shanghai to underscore China’s role as a 'strategic partner' for Argentina, a spokesperson said. But a spike in Covid-19 cases at home and the 14-day quarantine required by China put paid to plans.
They buy beef cuts that we do not consume in the country and at prices we will never pay
The CIIE would have been an ideal opportunity for Argentina to announce new or long-overdue deals with China. Notable among these are pig farms in the north of the country, and the possible construction of the country's fourth nuclear power plant, with Chinese funding and technology.
"These were the fundamental topics for Fernández's trip to China, which will now take place in 2021," said Patricio Giusto, executive director of the Sino Argentine Observatory, an organisation dedicated to studying the bilateral relationship.
Since taking office in December 2019, Fernández has expressed a desire for closer ties with China, unlike predecessor Mauricio Macri, who froze infrastructure and energy projects.
Fernández spoke with Xi Jinping in September and stated his intention to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China's foreign investment and infrastructure programme already has 19 Latin American and Caribbean backers. Yet the endorsement of Argentina and the region's other major economies are still pending.
Argentina usually has three stands at the CIIE. But this year there will only be two: One at the food and beverage pavilion hosted by the Argentine Agency for International Trade and Investment (AIyCI); the other solely dedicated to beef, hosted by the Beef Promotion Institute (IPCVA).
About 40 companies are registered to participate in the food and beverage stand, according to the Chinese state bank ICBC, but it remains to be seen how many will attend. As well as the pandemic, Argentina’s strict foreign currency controls represent a financial barrier to travelling. Most are expected to participate through their Chinese representatives.
"It is the largest fair that China has. It has a special content because it is the fair where China buys. It's a way to collaborate on problems related to the pandemic," said Emma Fontanet, manager of international trade promotion at the ICBC Foundation. "China wants to show that it is open to the world, that it is a potential partner for the growth of countries and for development."
More than half a million potential buyers and sellers visit the fair and, according to Fontanet, Argentina is a big draw. "In 2019 there were so many people in the Argentinean pavilion that you were short of breath.”
Argentinian beef at CIIE
China has become the top destination for Argentinian beef, accounting for 73% of sales so far this year.
Of Argentina's beef exports this year have gone to China
Jorge Grimberg, a senior advisor at IPCVA, says Argentina’s beef sector depends on China and must seize the opportunity that CIIE represents. "They buy beef cuts that we do not consume in the country and at prices we will never pay," he said.
Demand for animal protein in China has increased following the African swine fever crisis, which slashed the country's pig population by a third, says Grimberg, although numbers are slowly recovering.
Sadly for CIIE-going beef companies Santa Julia and Compañía Central Pampeana, the usual Argentine grill for tastings will not be permitted. Coronavirus restrictions mean they cannot travel with fresh meat.
ICBC signed a partnership agreement with the Argentine Investment Agency, which is in charge of the country's presence at the CIIE and provides financial support for the Argentinean stand.
"The cooperation agreement helps bring companies closer to the Chinese market," said Mariano Perel, ICBC's transactional products manager. But the pandemic cut short the possibility of a trade delegation from Argentine provinces, he added.
ICBC is one of the main sponsors of the CIIE, which allows the bank to have a close link with Argentine companies and grants them access to advice on how to do business with China. The bank also launched a bilateral trade platform for CIIE.
International funding is currently limited for Argentina because of its macroeconomic crisis. The country has just agreed to refinance its debt with foreign private creditors and is now negotiating to do the same with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with which it has a US$44 billion debt.
"The economic situation in the country affects international transactions. But we see that the Chinese companies are not making decisions at the pace of the economy, but have a medium- and long-term vision, and that strategy goes beyond any volatility," Perel said.